Biden visits taqueria as 186,000 restaurants apply for federal aid

More than 186,000 restaurants flooded the federal government with applications for money in the first two days of a program set up to ameliorate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said Wednesday.

President Joe Biden touted the high interest in the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, launched on Monday as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package he signed into law nearly two months ago, as an industry group warned the fund's popularity could cause it to quickly exhaust its $28.6 billion in funding.

"Whether it's our economy or our sense of community, we're relying on restaurants to play a big role in our recovery," Biden said at the White House Wednesday afternoon. "We want our economy to recover in a way that deals everyone in. Then our restaurants need a seat at the table, no pun intended."

The president said that the applications "all haven't been processed yet" but that "right now, it looks like we'll be able to provide help to about 100,000 restaurants and other eligible businesses."

"Restaurants are more than a major driver of our economy," he said. "They're woven into the fabric of our communities. And so for many families, restaurants are the gateway to opportunity, a key part of the American story."

The new program will provide grants of up to $10 million to restaurants, bars, food trucks, caterers, bakeries and other eateries.

"The question on the minds of many is what happens when applications outpace the available funds," the president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Tom Bené, said this week.

Earlier Wednesday -- Cinco de Mayo -- Biden made an unannounced visit to a taqueria in Washington that had been awarded money from a pilot version of the restaurant fund, as well as from the Payment Protection Program -- the federal government's signature program for providing businesses with pandemic-related aid over the past year. He said he ordered tacos and enchiladas.

Severely impacted by the economic crisis unleashed by the pandemic and restrictions on businesses to mitigate the spread of the virus, restaurants have over the past year become primary beneficiaries of government grants and loans to businesses.

Accommodation and food services businesses were the No. 1 industry benefiting from the latest round of funding from the Payment Protection Program -- receiving 17%, or $40 billion, of the loans, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. They have received billions more from separate federal aid programs for small businesses.

The Small Business Administration, which administers the Payment Protection Program and the new restaurant fund, said Tuesday that the Payment Protection Program had finally run out of money -- four weeks earlier than expected -- as the government transitions to more targeted programs.

The same could happen with the restaurant fund, according to the National Restaurant Association's chief lobbyist, Sean Kennedy.

Kennedy told grassroots supporters in an email that the "the total number of applicants is going to exceed expectations - and may quickly exhaust the $28.6 billion in federal funding."

The White House on Wednesday noted that 97,600 applications came from businesses controlled by women, veterans, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, and that 61,700 more were submitted by businesses making less than $500,000 annually before the pandemic -- "representing some of the smallest restaurants and bars in America."

Those applicants will be prioritized for the first three weeks of the program.

The businesses can use the grants for expenses like payroll and rent.

Franco's Ristorante in the Chicago area was one of the many restaurant groups that received forgivable loans both times they were made available through the Payment Protection Program.

Frank Ruffolo, a managing partner for the Italian restaurants, told ABC News that the loans allowed him to pay roughly 100 staff members across four locations, keeping around 95% of his team employed.

Franco's Ristorante has applied for funding from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund too, but the fact that the new program had so much less money behind it did not give Ruffolo hope.

"The funding that you had for the PPP loans compared to these grants -- it's much, much less," Ruffolo said. "So it doesn't really sound like there's enough out there for everyone."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the average turnaround time for applications for the program, "from submission to funding," will be up to two weeks.

Psaki said Biden was "open" to working with Congress to provide even more funding for restaurants in the future.

"There has already been a large interest in this program," Psaki said. "And there are great needs across the country from these small businesses, from these restaurants that are in communities across the country."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story initially misquoted Biden about the applications that had been submitted to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. He said they "all haven't been processed yet." The story has been updated.
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