us-house-panel-convenes-one-fair-wage.jpg Michael Duva / Stone
Restaurant owners and employees, One Fair Wage testified Friday before a U.S. House Ways & Means subcommittee hearing.

Restaurants in fight for survival, House panel is warned

Owners and employee representatives urge more federal aid in subcommittee hearing as adjournment nears

Restaurants are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions and face a fight for survival without further federal help, owners and employees testified Friday before a U.S. House Ways & Means subcommittee hearing.

As Congress readies to adjourn until November without taking action on a round of funding to help restaurants impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, the House Ways & Means subcommittee on select revenue measures called witnesses that ranged from individual owners to the chairman of the National Restaurant Association.

Sondra Bernstein, owner of the Girl & the Fig in Sonoma, Calif., said pandemic’s impact has been “heart-breaking” for the nation’s restaurant industry. The earlier rounds of Congress-approved Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, had been helpful, she said.

“We have since used our money. The money is gone, but we’ve been able to retain 75 or 80 employees,” Bernstein said. “We’re doing absolutely everything we can to stay afloat. We know if we are lean and mean we can get through to spring.”

However, she added, “We need help – like yesterday.” She said The Girl & The Fig, without federal assistance, would have to lay off another 60 people when cold winter weather limits outdoor dining. Bernstein said her catering operation has also been hit by the cancellation of such events as weddings, which numbered 50 lost this past summer.

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Sondra Bernstein, owner of the Girl & the Fig

Bernstein joined witness who included: Buddy Dyer, Mayor of Orlando, Fla.; Christine Hà, owner and chef at The Blind Goat in Houston; Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage; Melvin Rodrigue, owner of Galatoire’s Restaurant in New Orleans, La., and chair of the National Restaurant Association; and Mario Sandoval, a culinary worker in Las Vegas, Nev.

“Restaurant owners are making business decisions for October based on the actions you take today,” Rodrigue told the legislators.  I implore you: Please take action before leaving town for the elections.”

The House and Senate, however, appeared at a stalemate on further assistance to restaurants. The House, with all members up for election to two-year terms, is expected to adjourn soon and remain away until after the November elections.

“If Congress adjourns without extending the Paycheck Protection Program or providing other enhanced relief, more restaurants will close, more employees will lose their jobs and the pandemic economic crisis will deepen,” Rodrigue testified.

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Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wag

The National Restaurant Association in July urged a new targeted relief fund for operators with 20 or fewer units, liability protections, payroll tax relief for industry workers and other measures in its “Blueprint for Restaurant Revival,” sent to Congress.

The association has urged representatives to endorse Senate Bill 4012, also known as the “Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive Act,” or RESTAURANTS Act. The group said the RESTAURANTS Act “takes a balanced approach to support independent and locally owned franchise restaurants.”

Hà, a winner of the reality “MasterChef” show season three, opened The Blind Goat in a Houston food hall in 2019. When the pandemic led to restaurant closures in March, she said, The Blind Goat immediately pivoted to take-out and delivery.

“We had to scale back hours for the safety of my staff,” she said. “We closed out doors for dine-in.”

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Christine Hà, owner and chef at The Blind Goat in Houston

Hà said, “We need things like the RESTAURANTS Act to help really to continue to just help them [staff members] and help the business survive.”

Rodrigue noted that restaurants are often the centerpieces of communities.

“Restaurants and our employees have a personal connection with customers,” he said. “In some towns, it’s a small chain; in some towns, it’s a beloved local restaurant. But every one of you, and every American, has a place that is their favorite. Regardless of the name on the door, restaurants are community cornerstones that provide a ladder of opportunity for employees.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at Ronald.Ruggless@informa.com

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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