About a decade ago, Zenaida Merlin and Luis Estrada started their catering business, D’Maize. Estrada was trained as a chef in their native El Salvador. He spent half his day at another job and the other half making pupusas and other dishes in their home kitchen, in San Francisco’s Mission District.
After just one year, D’Maize outgrew their home and they moved the business into La Cocina, a Mission District kitchen incubator that focuses on helping Latino-owned businesses grow. Over the past decade, La Cocina has helped dozens of businesses move from home-based or curbside into brick-and-mortar locations. La Cocina gives businesses up to five years to grow in its space. D’Maize only needed two.
In 2016, as Next City covered at the time, D’Maize took out a small business loan from the Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit that has helped families in the Mission advance economically since its founding in 1973. Small business loans were a new addition to the agency’s work, and D’Maize was one of its first borrowers.
The loan helped D’Maize build out a space for a catering kitchen and restaurant along the Calle 24 corridor — one of San Francisco’s cultural heritage districts, which receive dedicated funding and other support from the city to help mitigate displacement caused by new development. But D’Maize was nearly displaced anyway by the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out its catering business, food truck, and satellite location at the City College of San Francisco.
“At least 75 percent of our revenues we lost,” says Estrada. When Next City spoke with Estrada for this story, D’Maize still hadn’t re-opened its restaurant, out of concern for the safety of its workers. The catering side of the business was a majority of its revenue before the pandemic, Estrada says, but it hasn’t picked back up yet because most of San Francisco’s downtown office workers are still working from home. The business has barely survived on takeout and delivery orders, not to mention spending down the couple’s savings.
Estrada can’t tell yet how long there is until he sees some light in the pandemic tunnel. But he’s feeling more confident about making it through, thanks to the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The fund provides grants to eligible recipients to cover the difference in revenue from 2020 compared to 2019.
Estrada says the funding D’Maize received allowed it to catch up on a years’ worth of unpaid bills, including invoices from suppliers.
“Our suppliers are local companies, local businesses that provide us every single ingredient. Vegetables, everything,” Estrada says. “Local farmers and local suppliers, they understood how we were impacted, so that was a blessing too that they went without us paying them for so long.”
The SBA’s online portal for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund closed yesterday. Without further action from Congress, not everyone who applied will get funding. Created under the American Rescue Plan, passed in March, there was an initial $28.6 billion appropriated by Congress for the fund. By May 18, recipients submitted 303,000 applications representing over $69 billion in requested funds.
Of those applications, more than 122,000 came from women business owners, and more than 71,000 came from “economically and socially disadvantaged business owners,” which the SBA defines as business owners “whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same or similar line of business who are not socially disadvantaged.”
As of May 18, the SBA had approved nearly 38,000 applicants for more than $6 billion in grants — all of them to businesses owned by women, veterans, or “socially or economically disadvantaged” people. Although all eligible entities could apply starting on May 3, the SBA announced it would only process and fund applications from those groups for the first 21 days of the program.
While it’s too early to make broad conclusions yet about the ultimate impact of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the pattern is a stark contrast to the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program last year. Although Congress clearly stipulated in legislation that the SBA should prioritize the most vulnerable small business owners under both programs, the PPP program stumbled badly out of the gate in doing so, with many of its early loans going to larger businesses and wealthier business owners who did not necessarily need the funds — and many ended up returning them.
“The website works as a starting point,” says Nathanial Owen, who led small business lending at Mission Economic Development Agency. “There are still definitely some major shortcomings to it, some issues of equity in access, but I would say [the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is] definitely the best rolled out program the SBA has done through the pandemic.”
Owen attributes the differences in the program’s reach to outside advocates pushing Congress and SBA to do better than the PPP program, especially after so many clear lessons were there to learn — like improving the online interface for the program. He also gives credit to new SBA Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman. She’s a familiar face to Owen, since prior to her appointment she was director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate, a department within the California Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
In Guzman’s previous role, she worked closely with groups like Mission Economic Development Agency to establish loan programs to fill in the gaps left by the Paycheck Protection Program.
In addition to the nonprofit’s current and previous small business borrowers, Mission Economic Development Agency has been contacting every business that came to it for assistance throughout the pandemic. It even set up a temporary call center to make and take calls for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, in English and Spanish.
“We’re also stepping up in-person appointments,” Owen says. “I personally am surprised at how many of our Latino-owned businesses have survived. What shape they’re in, I have doubts, but I’ve been surprised at how many have survived. We’re getting businesses that are way way behind on commercial rent. One of the pitches we’re making to them is, if you get these funds, you’ll be caught up right away.”
So far, Mission Economic Development Agency says it contacted more than 700 businesses about the restaurant revitalization program by Monday at noon PST. It says about half of those businesses had submitted an application — around 50 of them with the nonprofit’s assistance. It was in the process of helping several more submit applications by the SBA deadline of 8 p.m. EST.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund has also been more clear that it is open to street vendors — in webinars, outreach materials and the program’s webpage, eligible entities listed include “food stands, food trucks, food carts,” along with caterers, “bars, saloons, lounges, taverns,” “snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars,” bakeries, micro-breweries, and even wineries and distilleries that do at least 33 percent of their sales to onsite patrons.
“We have been answering a lot of questions about the Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” says Rui Li, an organizer with the Street Vendor Project in New York City. “The street vendors we know of so far who have applied did it through family members’ help or through accountants.”
Li was pleasantly surprised that the program explicitly listed street vendors as eligible recipients. “A lot of the folks we work with are very informal and micro-businesses, and with this fund you can apply with your ITIN or social security number or EIN,” she says. “That’s helpful for some of our members who are undocumented.”
Still, the online portal remains a barrier for some, according to Li. Some of their older members are still not very tech savvy, or have difficulty filling out an application on their smartphone, even though the application itself is mobile friendly.
“Almost every street vendor we talked to is in need of some technology assistance, whether it’s access to internet but also language,” says Li. In its outreach to members, the Street Vendor Project has been conducting webinars and providing counseling in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic and Bangla.
Li also brings up a barrier that has emerged throughout the pandemic — scammers offering fake assistance and taking street vendors’ private information over the phone.
“There are a lot of people out there taking advantage of the situation,” Li says. “It’s been very common throughout the pandemic. We’re noticing people, not just our members, getting scam calls all the time.”
Since the pandemic began, Street Vendor Project raised money to give out $1,000 grants to help more than 2,000 members. They hired temporary staff to make outreach calls about those grants, but some members thought those calls came from scammers, so they texted Li and her colleagues to check it wasn’t too good to be true.
And now some Street Vendor Project members have been getting messages about the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and wondering if it’s just another scam.
To help fill out applications, Street Vendor Project ended up doing two afternoons of in-person “office hours,” set up with laptops at tables across the street from their offices in Manhattan’s Financial District. Between Tuesday and Friday, the nonprofit helped more than a dozen street vendors submit applications for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — including Samy, a street vendor who has been selling from his kebab cart along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for 20 years.
“We’ve gotten no help this whole past year,” says Samy, who requested not to disclose his last name for privacy purposes. Before the pandemic, business was always good, he says — good enough to support his wife and two kids, now 16 and 13, from the income he earned despite having to pay $20,000-$30,000 on the black market every year to rent a mobile food vendor permit.
After years of advocacy from the Street Vendor Project, earlier this year NYC passed legislation to more than double the number of mobile food vendor permits gradually over the next few years, reducing some of the need for street vendors to continually dip into that black market.
The office hours sessions are probably also going to be good practice for later, when New York State’s Excluded Workers Fund opens up. Street Vendor Project helped lead a statewide coalition that got $2 billion set aside from the state budget for grants to street vendors, undocumented workers and others excluded from all other forms of pandemic-related economic relief over the past year.
But the implementation and rulemaking around the Excluded Workers Fund is expected to take time. Street Vendor Project isn’t expecting those applications to open up until September. For now, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund is the most meaningful relief available to street vendors who can provide the necessary documentation.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear yet whether Congress will re-up the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. In at least one early webinar with potential applicants, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York assured participants that Congress would re-up the fund as needed if the funds ran out.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.