Earlier this year, as bars and restaurants were facing potentially catastrophic financial losses due to the developing COVID-19 pandemic, one organization acted quickly to provide some measure of relief. On March 30th, the James Beard Foundation announced its new Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund, approximately one week after Ohio’s Stay at Home Order went into effect.
At the time, the Federal government was still designing its own suite of relief programs, in the form of the Small Business Administration’s PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Advance). Those programs rolled out later, with strings attached, while the JBF trusted owners to know exactly how best to address their specific challenges.
For over 30 years, the New York City-based James Beard Foundation has highlighted the centrality of food culture in our daily lives. James Beard was a culinary pioneer whose work, including numerous cookbooks and the first TV cooking program in 1946, laid the groundwork for the food revolution that has put the US at the forefront of global gastronomy. Today, the Foundation cultivates leadership and recognizes excellence in the culinary field, and has recently emerged as an industry leader through advocacy and education for chefs and restaurant owners navigating the coronavirus.
The response to this new grant program was staggering: 4,000 restaurants applied within the first four hours. In the end, through a combination of corporate, foundational and individual support, the JBF was able to award $15,000 grants to over 300 restaurants across the US, including three local businesses: Over-the-Rhine’s Abigail Street, Walnut Hills staple Brew House, and Mount Washington’s Sweets & Meats BBQ.
Abigail Street is an award-winning Mediterranean wine bar and tapas restaurant that primarily used the JBF grant for accounts payable and rent expenses. According to chef and co-owner Daniel Wright, “Overall, funding gives you peace of mind that takes stress and pressure off” for the team to be able to focus on reopening safely and returning to the food and wine for which it’s known. Due in part to this grant, the restaurant has been able to retain its pre-COVID staff levels.
The Brew House, a neighborhood pub in Walnut Hills, used the grant to pay its property taxes and insurance. Rather than rush to reopen, the owners, siblings Laura and Chris Davis, are focusing on physical improvements, including expanding the patio into a biergarten-type environment that will accommodate social distancing. According to Chris, “This is absolutely enabling us to reopen with more confidence, without conditions that we could get wrong and end up owing money.”
Mount Washington’s Sweets & Meats BBQ is a carryout restaurant and caterer with two food trucks. According to owner Kristen Bailey, since more than 2/3rds of the business is event-based, she “lost over $60,000 in revenue within the first 48 hours” after Ohio’s Stay at Home Order was enacted in late March. “This was our saving grace, as we used the entire grant to fund payroll. Luckily, we've been able to retain our staff and have since created five new jobs.” Over the past three months, the business added online ordering and curbside pickup, and its food trucks have been able to visit numerous neighborhoods to find and cultivate new customers.
In this ever-shifting pandemic landscape, there are few guarantees and even fewer assumptions that any of us can make, let alone those of us who own small businesses. The James Beard Foundation recognized the extent to which restaurants are woven into the economic, social and cultural fabric of the community, and acted swiftly to provide stabilizing funds during what continues to be a volatile time.