Last month, soon after we all realized just how devastating the coronavirus pandemic would be for the restaurant industry, New York City's James Beard Foundation announced that it would be giving relief funds through a restaurant grant program.
The amount of available funding was small at the time, so the foundation was quickly overwhelmed and had to cut off applications after only a few hours of posting the submission form online. But now that the organizers have had a chance to evaluate the applications they received, 36 grants for $15,000 each have been awarded across the country, three in each of the organization's twelve regions. In Colorado, the money was distributed to three independent restaurants, each filling a unique niche in the industry.
Igor and Becky Panasewicz own Quiero Arepas, which specializes in the street food of Igor's home country of Venezuela. Over the past decade, they've built the business from a farmers' market booth to a food truck, a counter at Avanti Food & Beverage and a restaurant at 1859 South Pearl Street. Becky says that celebrating the tenth anniversary of Quiero Arepas just a few days ago would have felt hollow had it not been for the grant. "It means everything," she explains. "We are so grateful to the James Beard Foundation, but it's definitely something we never expected."
After applying for the grant just minutes after the application form went live, Becky received a generic email from the foundation stating that only the grant recipients would receive further notices, since there were far too many applicants to respond to each individual request. She assumed that was the last she'd hear from the organization, and put the application out her mind. But a few days later, a second email came through with "Congratulations" in the subject line. "I remember wondering if this was even real or if it was some sort of phishing scam — it just seemed too good to be true."
But then Igor, who had been checking the restaurant's bank account at the time, said that $15,000 had just been deposited...only five days after Becky had applied for the grant. "I pay three different rents [including a garage that houses the food truck] just to stay open, so this kept us from zeroing out three different times," she says.
The Panasewiczes run their business debt-free and hadn't applied for any other loan programs. "It seemed that no offers were real offers," she adds. "They were just 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.'" But with the James Beard money, the couple will be able to keep paying bills and running Quiero Arepas as a takeout restaurant until they're allowed to fully reopen and bring back staff.
In Colorado Springs, Brother Luck runs two restaurants, Four by Brother Luck and Lucky Dumpling. He's already received a Payroll Protection Plan loan from the federal government, but had applied for the James Beard grant while he was awaiting word on the PPP. The federal loan stipulates that it's forgivable as long as the recipient begins using the money within ten days of receiving it and spends 75 percent of it on payroll-related expenses within eight weeks. So Luck reopened his dumpling shop and began planning to reopen Four as well, so that he could rehire and begin paying his staff. But there were still plenty of bills stacking up that needed to be paid, and the chef felt like he was rushing back into things with little time to plan.
"And then the James Beard Foundation gave us the grant, and that was a blessing," he explains. "It allowed us to put some money in the bank and pay some deferred bills. It took a weight off my shoulders and allowed me to stop for a moment and get out of survival mode."
Luck says that while he had also been awarded a $25,000 loan through Colorado Springs's Survive and Thrive program, getting the James Beard grant allowed him to "pay it forward" by passing the loan on to other restaurants. "One of the things that has helped is knowing that we're not in this alone," he notes, "that the anxiety, fear and depression are being experienced by everyone and we can all help each other through it."
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In Centennial, Khiem Nguyen runs Crawfish Boil Co. Restaurant & Bar, a Cajun-style seafood restaurant that opened just over a year ago. He said he didn't know about the James Beard Foundation or its grant program, but his sister, who owns a food truck in Atlanta, referred him to the website, so he was able to fill out an application before submissions were closed. "It's just amazing — that's about all I can say about it," he states. "Working with them was one of the best experiences I've ever had. We are just lucky to be able to open our doors."
While several Viet-Cajun restaurants have done well in other parts of metro Denver in recent years, Nguyen says his restaurant, at 6851 South Gaylord Street in the Streets at Southglenn, offers a unique combination of sauces for crawfish, crab, shrimp and other seafood, as well as po'boys and Southern-style sides.
Receiving the money has allowed Nguyen to improve the restaurant's ability to serve takeout food to a wider audience. "A lot of people don't know about this kind of food, but people in the community have been happy once they try us," he says. "During this time, our food has adapted well to takeout. We've added more traditional Cajun dishes as well as our Vietnamese-fusion."
Since the initial round of grants, the James Beard Foundation has received more donations through corporate sponsors and individual donors to keep the program alive, so there's now more than $4 million that will be distributed in two more rounds in April and May. While the foundation has put its annual James Beard Award announcements on hold this spring, the grants have made for some unlikely winners, and because the money will be spread throughout the foundation's twelve regions, more help will be coming to restaurants in the Rocky Mountain region that comprises Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Montana.