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Op-Ed: New Restaurants Can't Get COVID Relief Funds

Brasserie Brixton opened in July 2020.EXPAND
Brasserie Brixton opened in July 2020.
Mark Antonation
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Justin Morse is the co-owner of Brasserie Brixton at 3701 Williams Street, which opened in July 2020. Morse didn't choose to open a restaurant in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic; he'd been planning the opening for more than a year when the pandemic hit.

“What do you mean you have gotten nothing? You’re a restaurant, you’re at 25 percent capacity. How are you staying open?”

Albeit paraphrased, this is the typical response I get when I explain that, to date, we have received zero dollars from any COVID-related government assistance program even though we have applied, or attempted to apply, to as many as we can find as we operate a restaurant during the time of obvious hardship for our industry. The reason? We opened in the middle of the pandemic.

I first applied for the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) assistance program from the U.S. Small Business Administration back in the spring when it first came out and our zip code was eligible. After filling out the online application and numerous follow-up attempts to contact someone at the SBA to see where we stood in line, I was eventually told I had to apply again. After going through the process a second time, I was finally informed months later that we did not qualify as we did not have the financial documentation to show a decline in sales. It was around this time that restaurants were completely shut in Denver, and although we were not open yet, we were a fully functioning legal business with bills to pay. Our intent was to be open at this point, but the pandemic was not allowing us to be.

We finally opened mid-July and have subsequently filed for various state and local programs, whether it was a grant related to the actual business operation or funding to help with the patio expansion. Almost every program, including the most recent offer by the City of Denver to distribute free PPE supplies, asks to see proof of a decline of sales of either 25 or 50 percent. So, to put it another way, we can’t even receive free hand sanitizer, even though we are a fully operational business that is currently under an occupancy and curfew restriction, because we opened in the middle of the pandemic, not before. To add insult to injury, many restaurant operators were on a conference call with the city recently about how much the city is doing to help our industry only to hear the tone-deaf boasting of the tax revenue the city has received on our behalf.

This is what Brasserie Brixton looked like in the summer of 2019, with co-owners Justin Morse and Amy Keil out front.EXPAND
This is what Brasserie Brixton looked like in the summer of 2019, with co-owners Justin Morse and Amy Keil out front.
Staci Berry

I understand that for most operators, many of these programs are applicable, and I have friends who have benefited, and I am grateful for that. But I also know that I am not unique. In the past eight months, new businesses have opened because they had to. I also understand that there needs to be some type of criteria on who gets the funds and those who need it most should be most eligible. However, the length of time in business should not be one of those criteria. Do I really have to explain to our leaders that a business plan doesn’t work at 25 percent of projected sales? Not to mention that we had the uphill battle of having a non-existent customer base when we opened and no revenue in the bank from pre-pandemic sales.

If this sounds personal, it is because it is. The restaurant we opened was funded by me and some close friends. We designed and physically built it ourselves, spending way too much time framing, drywalling, tiling, etc., to even track. Countless hours were poured into creating an establishment we are all proud of. We employ some amazing people who are all holding on by a thread this year, as is the industry generally.

Restaurants don’t happen overnight; it was almost two years ago that we were going through the city zoning process and starting the drawing and permitting process — all well before COVID-19 was the topic of almost every conversation. We opened when we did because there were bills to pay — we had to.

Now can I at least get some free hand sanitizer?

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