Restaurant owners say federal grants a lifeline

It appears the recent round of Restaurant Revitalization Fund grants — nearly $28.6 billion to 101,004 restaurants across the country as of June 30 — provided just the lifeline some Las Vegas restaurant operators needed to weather the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevada restaurants and lounges were granted $267,504,133 in the latest round of federal assistance. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share, $243,722,200, went to businesses in Southern Nevada. And operators said it was welcome relief.

“Oh, gosh — yes, for sure,” said Shila Morris, president and co-owner of Squeeze In, which is headquartered in Reno but has two restaurants in Las Vegas. “We were really happy to get that. We were so grateful.” Squeeze In Holdings Inc. received $270,049.38.

The Restaurant Revitalization Funds came on the heels of two rounds of funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

“Unequivocally — without a doubt — we would not have stayed in business or been able to remain open had we not received that assistance from the government,” she said.

Morris said when the shutdown took effect on March 18 of last year, they immediately saw an 80 percent drop in revenue.

“It was terrifying to fly off that cliff,” she said.

After reopening, they faced challenges in terms of increased sanitation measures and interruptions in the supply chain, plus revenue that still lagged.

“Even when we were able to be open at reduced capacity, we were still upside down,” she said. “We weren’t making any money. Having the money to get through those times was crucial. I don’t know how anybody got through it without those, and every restaurant owner I’ve talked to says the same.”

Morris said Squeeze In used the RRF grant for payroll and to catch up on lease and vendor obligations. The first round of PPP, she said, was used to upgrade employee health insurance.

The maximum amount of money granted in the RRF program was $10 million. No Nevada businesses got that amount, although 17 in California, five in New York and three in Texas did. But four Nevada businesses got grants of $5 million each: Pampas Churrascaria Las Vegas LLC, Buenas Noches LLC, SF Paris LLC and Chateau Nightclub LLC.

Most grants were in the range of what Squeeze In got, and the $4,109,977.10 that went to Lotus of Siam. Lotus co-owner Penny Chutima said they were getting by fine because of the PPP, but the RRF money will help make improvements to draw employees, which has been an ongoing challenge for the industry across Southern Nevada.

“We don’t have a retention problem; we have an onboarding problem,” Chutima said, adding that the 120 employees she had before the pandemic have shrunk to 90 very thinly stretched workers.

“Because of the RRF, we were able to have employee insurance without them having to pay anything,” she said.

The money also helped on much-needed facility upgrades from when the Lotus at 620 E. Flamingo Road opened as a Roy’s Restaurant.

“We’re planning to close the Flamingo location and redo the entire kitchen,” she said. “So that’s going to help big-time.”

She said if plans and permits are improved, that location will close in mid-August and operations will shift to the one at 953 E. Sahara Ave., which had been closed temporarily because of the worker shortage.

Nationally, the grants averaged $283,000, which meant most were far larger than Nevada’s smallest, the $1,465 that went to Delores Delightz LLC, a bakery. But Morris said the numbers can be deceiving.

“It looks like a lot of money,” she said of the $279,049.38 Squeeze In was granted. “For an individual, that would be life-changing. But for a business, that’s three payrolls. Thank God, it’s a lifeline for the next six weeks.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at [email protected] Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.