EAU CLAIRE — The flow of customers dining and drinking at Houligan’s Steak & Seafood Pub is almost back to normal, but the downtown Eau Claire restaurant is still not fully recovered from the financial blow dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
From 20 years in operation, co-owner Jon Seybold said the business had built up a pretty good nest egg, but that was drained during the 2½ months last spring when restaurants were shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“By the time we reopened, we pretty much exhausted our savings,” Seybold said.
The Paycheck Protection Program provided help affording salaries when the restaurant reopened last June, bringing in about half the revenue it normally would as customers were still reluctant to dine out.
With those forgivable loans exhausted, Seybold is optimistic the federal government can help get his restaurant and others like it back to the position they were in before COVID hit.
He applied for help from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund — a $28.6 billion program created in March by the American Rescue Plan Act — but didn’t make the cut as many other small restaurants across the U.S. competed for those funds.
Requests from more than 372,000 restaurants, bars and other hospitality businesses were made totaling over $76 billion, according to testimony that Isabella Casillas Guzman, administrator of the Small Business Administration provided last week to Congress.
Over half of the applications were from businesses owned by women, veterans and people considered socially or economically-disadvantaged — categories given priority in receiving the funding.
In a visit to Eau Claire on Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said the aid is quickly going out to businesses that were hard-hit by the pandemic.
“That is happening right now and we’re seeing demand surge,” he said.
When asked if Congress may approve more money to help restaurants like Seybold’s that didn’t get an award from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, Kind said it is possible through an infrastructure package that lawmakers are considering.
The program provides money to small restaurants and taverns for the drop in revenues they experienced during 2020 due to the pandemic. Those receiving money from the program can spend it on payroll and employee benefits, rent or mortgage payments, paying debt service, utility bills, adding outdoor seating, building maintenance, supplies and other normal operating expenses. Businesses that already received federal forgivable loans to continue paying employees during the pandemic are eligible for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, but the previous government assistance will reduce how much new money they can get.
For Houligan’s, its 2020 revenues were down $469,000 from what it brought in from customers in 2019, Seybold said. The Paycheck Protection Program already offset about half of that, but he said additional funding would help him with mortgage payments and maintenance projects he’d put off last year.
“There’s a lot of things like that we’re trying to catch up on now,” Seybold said.
Kind referred to federal programs that help ailing businesses as the “bridge to the other side” of the pandemic.
“It’s time to start getting our lives back together again,” Kind said.
During his visit to the downtown Eau Claire restaurant, the congressman also urged people to get vaccinated and cited that as a path back to normalcy.
The Leader-Telegram sought comment from the man already planning to challenge Kind in 2022 about his thoughts on the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Derrick Van Orden’s campaign stated setbacks that restaurants faced were due to government regulations that kept them closed during the pandemic, which he attributed to Democrats. The Hager City Republican who narrowly lost to Kind in 2020 also criticized federal coronavirus relief spending approved by the Democratic majority in Congress.
“Washington Democrats like Ron Kind forced through a massive spending bill that is preventing businesses from finding employees and creating a wave of inflation that is hurting the wallets of American families,” the Van Orden campaign said in an emailed statement to the Leader-Telegram.