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Arizona Independent Restaurants: Busy Doesn’t Equal Financially Healthy

While traffic has picked up at many Valley restaurants, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing well financially. And some local independent restaurant owners are counting on Congress for help.

Despite being eligible for a grant through the national Restaurant Revitalization Fund, Kell Duncan didn’t get any money. The $28.6 billion program was quickly depleted.

Duncan, who operates the Churchill in downtown Phoenix, was among more than 200,000 applicants nationwide who didn’t get the help they expected. 

“When I look around at the people waiting for this, it’s not a bunch of big corporate chains, it’s a lot of my friends that are small business owners in the same neighborhood,” he said.

More than 3,000 Arizona restaurants applied for funding, and 1,324 got it.

“The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was supposed to be the lifeline we needed, but it turned out to be a big fat joke,” said Dwayne Allen, co-owner of The Breadfruit and Rum Bar in Phoenix. “They provided just one-third of what was needed and nearly pitted restaurateurs against each other. Now what are we, the 200,000 restaurant owners who got nothing supposed to do?”

Duncan said the Churchill, a collection of 10 small local businesses housed in shipping containers, reopened in October 2020. Business began picking up in January and February with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, but it’s still not at pre-pandemic levels. Plus, restaurants are dealing with staffing shortages and higher food prices.

"Most of them are on a very thin line of either making it or not." — Kell Duncan, the Churchill

“Most of them are on a very thin line of either making it or not,” Duncan said. “And most people don’t know that because from the outside they’re just trying to make it work and they look busy, but a lot of them are buried under short-term stuff.”

He means things like loans to pay taxes and insurance and cover deferred payments for utilities. Duncan said receiving a $200,000 grant would help The Churchill pay off its short-term loans.

The average grant from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was $283,000, according to the Small Business Administration which administered the fund. As outlined by Congress, awards for restaurants and bars were equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss, with a cap of $10 million per business and $5 million per location.

“If the federal government can support the airline and auto industries — with significantly more money by the way — when they needed help, they must do the same for ours,” Allen said.

Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema sponsored a bill to provide another $60 billion for restaurant relief.

“Arizona restaurants fuel jobs across our state, and these employers need support now more than ever,” Sinema said in a news release. “Our Restaurant Rescue Plan is getting Arizonans back to work and ensuring local Arizona restaurants can keep their doors open, and more resources are needed as we continue fueling a full economic recovery.”

While there appears to be bipartisan support to provide more funding, it’s the how that’s holding back widespread consensus. Unlike Sinema’s bill in the Senate which calls for new money, a bill in the House would require using previously allocated unspent coronavirus dollars to replenish the restaurant relief fund.

Map: Restaurant Revitalization Fund Grants In Arizona

Download The Full List (PDF)

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.