Which South Florida eateries got the most money from the federal government? | INTERACTIVE

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Jul 16, 2021 3:41 PM

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Sean Gegen throws dough at Tomasso's Pizza & Subs, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Tomasso's received about $2,000 from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which is supposed to give extra economic help to restaurants.

Sean Gegen throws dough at Tomasso’s Pizza & Subs, Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Tomasso’s received about $2,000 from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which is supposed to give extra economic help to restaurants. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

Restaurants and bars across South Florida earned $597.6 million in grants before the Restaurant Revitalization Fund ran out of money in July.

A total of 2,093 food-service businesses in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties received a piece of the $28.6 billion federal fund, out of 17,238 that applied statewide. Restaurants received on average $285,540, and at least half of all restaurants got $122,800 or less, according to data released this week. Congress set aside this stimulus – which is a grant, not a loan – as part of its March COVID-19 relief package to help business owners erase steep losses from the past year.

South Florida restaurants earned at least $1,000, but only seven businesses earned the maximum grant allowed: $5 million. Topping the list of Restaurant Revitalization Fund recipients:

  1. Professional Concessions, the official concessionaire of South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach ($5 million)
  2. The Wharf Fort Lauderdale, an outdoor entertainment venue ($5 million)
  3. Bâoli Miami, an Asian-fusion restaurant and lounge in Miami Beach ($5 million)
  4. Mr Jones Miami, a South Beach nightclub ($5 million)
  5. Clevelander South Beach, a hotel and bar in Miami Beach ($5 million)
  6. Flagami Liquor Store, in Miami’s Little Havana ($5 million)
  7. MV Catering LLC, a North Miami catering company ($5 million)
  8. The Signature Grand, a Davie ballroom and rental space ($4.75 million)
  9. LDV Hospitality, a Miami hospitality group (Scarpetta, Dolce Italian, Nolita Social) ($4.64 million)
  10. Par Caterers, a Tequesta-based catering company ($4.48 million)

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From the moment the fund opened May 3, it was clear there wasn’t enough money to go around. Applications flooded the website of the Small Business Administration, which runs the program, says Althea Harris, acting deputy director of SBA’s South Florida District Office in Miami.

“Based on math alone, we were going to run out of money no matter what, lawsuit or no lawsuit,” says Harris, who says national applications totaled $72.2 billion – far more than the $28.6 billion available. “There was just not enough to go around, and we did the best we could with what we had.”

The Independent Restaurant Coalition, a New York-based advocacy group for small restaurants nationwide, has lobbied Congress this month to refill the fund through the RRF Replenishment Act of 2021, which would give an extra $60 billion for restaurants still hoping for grant money. For now, there is little guarantee that extra funding will be approved.

“We know job numbers have improved and businesses look busy, but nearly 200,000 restaurants that applied for a Restaurant Revitalization grant didn’t receive the assistance they needed,” IRC Executive Director Erika Palmer said in a July 8 news conference.

Food-service businesses open before the pandemic – spanning food trucks to caterers, bakeries to brewpubs, and wineries to taverns – all qualified for the program, Harris says. Restaurants could use the money on a wide range of expenses from payroll and back-owed rent to patios and upgrades.

The SBA calculated grants by subtracting a restaurant’s 2020 gross receipts from their 2019 gross receipts, then subtracted aid from PPP loans. The remaining amount is the grant, she says. (The formula differed slightly for businesses that opened in 2019 or 2020.)

“They’ll have to tell us how they spent the money with bank statements, and provide documentation for each expenditure, and give it to the SBA,” Harris says. “It all has to add up.”

One of the seven South Florida businesses that earned the maximum — $5 million — was Emi Guerra’s embattled downtown drinking hotspot the Wharf Fort Lauderdale.

The money comes months after the Wharf was engulfed in a social-media firestorm over maskless young partiers last November swarming the outdoor venue, forcing code officers to shut it down. All told, the Wharf stayed closed for 10 months, Guerra says.

“We’re a very large business who employs a lot of people, so this money will let us catch up. Honestly, if it wasn’t for this and PPP loans, we wouldn’t be here,” says Guerra, who plans to cover months of unpaid rent, fill staff shortages and make “investments in products and experiences,” he says.

The grant won’t benefit The Wharf Miami, Guerra’s sister venue on the Miami River that will close in coming months to make way for new skyscrapers.

LM Restaurants, the company that owns beachfront restaurant Lucky Fish in Pompano Beach, applied but hasn’t received a decision from the SBA yet. Management isn’t too worried if the application is declined.

“We would be able to survive, probably,” says Gary Sachs, LM Restaurants’ vice president of finance.

Pizza is served for pickup at Tomasso's Pizza & Subs in Boca Raton. Tomasso's received $2,385 from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Pizza is served for pickup at Tomasso’s Pizza & Subs in Boca Raton. Tomasso’s received $2,385 from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

“The challenges for us have been restrictions on capacity,” Sachs says. “Lucky Fish was very lucky in the sense that it’s open-air, and it was able to do better business than a closed restaurant.”

Although some restaurants received very little through the program, the extra money made a substantial difference in combating COVID-related costs.

Tomasso’s Pizza & Subs in Boca Raton received $2,385 from the grant, after losing 75 percent of its lunch customers as people worked remotely during the pandemic.

“We took advantage of the government funding because we did not know what was coming down the road,” says Mike Tomasso, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Peg. “We felt it was better to be prepared.”

Tomasso used the money to increase his staff’s wages and to absorb higher costs for meat and paper goods.

Customers wait to pick up food at Tomasso's Pizza & Subs in Boca Raton.

Customers wait to pick up food at Tomasso’s Pizza & Subs in Boca Raton. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

For Soulful Catering in Pompano Beach, nearly $4,000 in grants saved the business.

“It was a blessing for us,” says owner Wanas Walls.

The grant allowed him to hire more workers, catch up on bills and pay his employees “what they’re worth,” even as the number of catering events declined, he says. He also plans to donate more of his leftover food to homeless shelters.

“The government was trying to help as many people as [it] could,” he says. “Maybe they could have allocated some money … toward businesses that will go back into the community … and keep things flourishing.”

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Robin Servidio eagerly hopped on Small Business Administration’s website on day one – May 3 – to file an application for her crab shack True in downtown Boca Raton, which dished Maryland-style crab cakes, boiled blue crab and peel-and-eat shrimp steamed in beer and Old Bay.

Two weeks later, the feds direct-deposited $48,597 into her bank account.

The much-needed cash arrived too late to save her restaurant. Facing sluggish pandemic sales last fall, Servidio made the mistake of waffling over her lease renewal, letting it expire, and her landlord leased it to someone else. She closed True in early July, and plans to use the grant as seed money for her next storefront, which has been especially tough to find amid shrinking options for commercial real estate.

“I gained so many customers over the cooler spring months and now I’m kicking myself for not renewing,” Servidio says. “This money helps me keep the dream alive.”

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