More than 100 years after her great-grandfather first opened his seafood stall in Baltimore’s Lexington Market, Faidley Seafood owner Damye Hahn and her son, Will, drove to Washington to help ensure the family business lasts for generations more.
Hahn spoke at a news conference Wednesday sponsored by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, an advocacy group that is urging Congress to replenish the federal government’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, designed to help businesses that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Many restaurants like Hahn’s were denied relief during the initial round of funding, which provided over 100,000 grants but had more than twice as many applicants.
“There’s 177,000 people that were left out, we’ve got to replenish the whole program,” she said.
The event at Tortilla Coast, blocks away from the U.S. Capitol and a regular haunt for lawmakers and staff, according to the restaurant’s owner, included two congressmen who are working on legislation to provide an additional $60 billion to restore the fund.
“The neighborhood restaurant is a quintessential building block of livable communities,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat and sponsor of the Restaurant Revitalization Replenishment Act. “Restaurateurs already have enough debt, they don’t need more debt, they needed cash to be able to weather this storm.”
Restaurant owners have criticized the U.S. Small Business Administration’s initial rollout of the $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund as unfairly selecting winners and losers in the economy. Those who received funding in the first round of grant distribution — including large companies such as The Greene Turtle, Phillip’s Seafood and various Atlas Restaurant Group eateries — are better positioned to compete for resources and labor at a time when prices for both are skyrocketing.
Zack Mills, executive chef and partner of True Chesapeake Oyster Co., which operates a restaurant in Hampden and food stalls in Mount Vernon and in Virginia, said all three businesses were denied funding through the federal program after the money ran out.
“How long can you float?” said Mills, adding that his businesses have “been operating at a loss for a year and a half now.”
In the earlier round of aid distribution, Congress initially mandated that priority go to businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans. Faidley Seafood is one of nearly 3,000 businesses that had been approved to receive funding before their prioritization was held up in litigation.
Over the summer, Hahn and other Baltimore area business owners who had missed out on funding through the program organized behind Thiru Vignarajah, former state deputy attorney general, who signed on as a spokesman for their cause. The group set up a website for restaurant owners to share issues they encountered receiving funding. The group got more than 400 responses.
Though slated initially for Maryland business owners only, the group quickly began hearing from people across the nation — from candy makers in California to a fried chicken purveyor in Kansas, Hahn said.
“Every state in this entire country has people that applied that didn’t get funded,” she said.
Among the complaints is that those who received funding are able to raise salaries and poach employees away from businesses that lost out and are struggling.
“I’m talking to restaurants that were saying, ‘I didn’t get the relief. I can’t raise the salaries of my employees. But those who did get the relief are now calling my employees and stealing them away. And now I don’t have anybody,’” she said.
Hahn originally set out to help just those businesses that, like hers, had been approved for funding only to see it withdrawn. But after realizing the scale of the problem — two-thirds of applicants received nothing, she began to see things differently. The hospitality industry is like “a brotherhood or sisterhood,” she said. “Everybody has stepped up to help each other.”
In collaborating with the Independent Restaurant Coalition, Hahn has honed her media savvy. She held back promoting the cause during the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. In the midst of all that turmoil, “nobody was going to talk about restaurants,” she said. “We said, OK, this is not the right news cycle.”
Hahn is hopeful the timing is right now.
She praised Maryland’s U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship and led an effort to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. In August, he sought unanimous consent to approve legislation that would add $48 billion to the fund, calling it a matter of “fairness and a matter of absolute need.” The bill was blocked by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican who argued that providing relief to restaurants would only add to the nation’s growing debt and encourage future lockdowns.
“That’s the day I think I threw the shoe at the TV,” Hahn said.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Cardin said the senator “is working to advance bipartisan proposals, including targeted relief to restaurants and other small businesses still struggling under the burdens of COVID-19.”
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund is one of multiple issues Hahn said she’s bringing to the attention of lawmakers. Others include a lack of visas available for crab pickers — an issue she said has contributed to the skyrocketing price of crab meat and threatens the crabbing industry as a whole.
“For these poor crab processors, there’s only like 11 of them left on the Eastern Shore,” she said. “What happens if they go away?”
Mills and others present Wednesday expressed concern for what the coming months will hold as the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads and many restaurtants see a drop in reservations.
“You wonder, how much longer this will last versus how much longer we can last?” he said.
Tortilla Coast owner Geoff Tracy called himself one of the “fortunate few operators who received relief” through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The money, he said, allowed him to survive the past 18 months: to bring back 200 employees and make needed repairs. Still, he noted, overall sales are down about 75% compared to pre-pandemic levels.
At Faidley Seafood, the restaurant’s woes sound like proof of Murphy’s Law. Half of its business comes from tourism, a sector of the economy that all but disappeared in 2020. While the restaurant’s income dropped 70% during the pandemic, its expenses didn’t change. The city continued to charge the company rent at Lexington Market. Staff still needed to get paid.
There are more mundane stressors, too, from problems with the air conditioning at Lexington Market to a shortage of plastic that impacts everything from cups to the individually-wrapped saltine packets the eatery serves with coddies and soup, Hahn said. Frying oil has doubled in price. After a year of upheaval, Hahn believes it will be years before the supply chain stabilizes.
Despite the headaches, Hahn has no plans to close her family’s business.
After five generations and 135 years, hers won’t be “the generation to throw in the towel,” she said, walking with her son near the U.S. Capitol on a cloudless fall afternoon. The business, she pointed out, has survived not only the Great Depression and two world wars, but the flu epidemic of 1918.
“‘Quits’ not in our vocabulary,” she said. “That’s why I’m here.”