For owner Lori Burson, the restaurant business is still about serving customers who come to Stella in Oklahoma City for takeout, but it’s also a daily bout for survival amid a pandemic that has decimated her industry in a matter of weeks.
Burson cultivated her love of Italian food in Rome, where she spent time in a college study-abroad program. She opened Stella a decade ago, and it has become a favorite in the city’s competitive restaurant scene.
Celebrations had been planned for Stella’s 10th year, but those will have to wait. Everything will have to wait, it seems.
“We’re just going day by day, trying to keep people in my building and employed,” Burson said. “We’ve gone from being a full-service restaurant to a limited number of hours each evening. But we have had tremendous support from friends. It may not be in their budget, but people are making room to get takeout from us and it is appreciated.”
Federal stimulus bill, OKC program could help
Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill last month. Much of the effort is aimed at keeping corporate behemoths like Delta Airlines and Marriott in business, but it also includes provisions for people who own small businesses such as restaurants.
A $349 billion lending program dubbed the “Paycheck Protection Program” is available to small businesses that have fewer than 500 employees on site.
Businesses can apply for loans worth as much as two-and-a-half times their average monthly payroll costs, as long as that amount doesn’t exceed $10 million. The funding is provided for up to two-and-a-half months and in many cases will convert to grants if business owners keep their staff on their payroll through that period.
State Chamber of Oklahoma Vice President Mike Jackson said the paycheck protection portion of the federal stimulus is of particular benefit to small businesses like restaurants.
“I think when you look at things like the Paycheck Protection Program, that is going to be helpful,” Jackson said. “I think Congress and our state government are trying to draft policies that are structured in a way to help people stay employed and have money to survive on in the short term.”
About 15 million Americans work in the food service industry, according to the National Restaurant Association. It’s big business. Fast-food restaurants alone comprise a $900 billion industry.
The stimulus bill and the opportunity it presents to those in the food service industry have been praised by groups like the National Restaurant Association.
“Restaurants and employees have been community lifelines during the coronavirus crisis — all while dealing with a catastrophic cash flow crunch, massive layoffs, and in too many cases, total shutdowns,” the association’s vice-president of public affairs, Sean Kennedy, said in a statement. “We applaud President (Donald) Trump and bipartisan congressional leaders in crafting a relief bill that give unique recovery options to the restaurant industry.”
The Oklahoma City city council approved a $5.5 million small business continuity program at its meeting Tuesday that includes a $1.5 million incentive plan for businesses of up to 15 employees to keep those workers on their payroll. There is also another $3 million allotted for no interest, forgivable loans up to $50,000, and low interest loans from $50,000 to $100,000 for businesses with 50 or fewer employees.
Uncertainty remains for OKC restaurants
While the stimulus offers a lifeline, there are questions about how it will work.
To that end, the State Chamber has focused on trying to help business owners have the information they need.
“Our job is to answer questions and to connect people with the information they need,” Jackson said. “There are a lot of questions about things like taxes and unemployment, and we’re trying to get as much information out as possible so they can see what programs are available and what might best fit their business.”
The Oklahoma Restaurant Association has also created several resources to help those in the industry through its Keep Calm Carry Out campaign, which provides a list of restaurants across the state offering takeout during the pandemic.
COVID-19: A buzz kill for state’s bars and restaurants by Matt Patterson
David Attalla, who owns The Wedge, Drum Room and other restaurants, is hopeful the stimulus bill will help him pay his employees. Attalla said he employs 75 to 100 people when his businesses are operating normally.
Sales in March were down 50 percent for Attalla’s businesses compared to the same month last year. The Blue Note Lounge, which Attalla also owns, is closed completely. He said he has been able to keep some staff employed, thanks to a temporary program funded by two OKC law firms that pays him to make and deliver food to hospital workers and senior citizens in central Oklahoma during the pandemic.
“We’ve been so grateful to be able to do that,” Attalla said. “It makes you feel good to feed the people on the front lines, and it helps keep people working.”
He said he plans on taking part in the federal program.
“I have been studying it pretty closely, and I’ve had some people who have helped advise me on it, but from what I understand we can pay our employees for up to 10 weeks,” Attalla said. “But I’m not sure if we have to be open to do that or how it would work. There are some questions that I need answers to, but I think it’s going to be able to help us.”
‘We’re all facing the same problems’
Burson said she is also planning on taking advantage of the Small Business Administration loan-grant program contained in the stimulus.
“I’m definitely going to be applying,” she said. “I’m excited about it, because hopefully it will allow a lot of small businesses stay open.”
Burson, who has been communicating with at least a dozen local restaurateurs on a group text, believes many will take part in the program out of necessity. Currently, Stella is open for takeout Tuesdays through Sundays, and she has been encouraging people to buy gift cards to Stella and other local eateries. But it’s not enough.
“I think we’re all going to have to do it to keep our doors open,” she said. “Right now, I have very little income coming in, but the bills are still coming. I know I’m not alone. We’re all facing the same problems.”
Attalla sees no other option than to survive.
“We’re going to fight any way we can,” he said.