Small restaurants like mine need Congress to right a wrong and replenish the RRF before it’s too late

As a veteran, I know what it’s like to struggle, to endure not only physical exhaustion, but also emotional and mental exhaustion. I served our country for six years in the military, and for the past two years I have fought on a battlefield that is certainly different, yet in many ways it is the same. I’m a small restaurateur in Texas that runs on steam.

Last summer I thought we would finally get some help, but in a maddening series of events, being a veteran worked against me when I tried to use an underfunded congress but critically created for small independent restaurants known as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund or RRF.

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Two of the four restaurants I operate with my brother and chef are RRF qualified and I was even invited to beta test the application portal. After a few weeks of back and forth, one of my restaurants received an official government award letter.

I felt extremely relieved that the grant was finally going to give us a chance to recover from so much turmoil. But 15 days later, I was one of 2,965 approved applicants who received a devastating email stating, “We regret to inform you that due to recent court rulings, the US Small Business Administration (SBA) will not be able to disburse your Restaurant Revitalization Fund Award.”

Brandon Luke is the majority partner of HattenLuke Hospitality Group, a Dallas-based family restaurant and events team that currently operates four restaurant concepts: The Woolworth, Smithy on Henderson, Uno Mas Henderson and Uno Mas Downtown. L

I remember reading this email as I stood in the restaurant watching our staff work; complete sadness and frustration washed over me. The relief hadn’t come after all. We soon learned that our two restaurants were at the bottom of the pack because a lawsuit had blocked the prioritization process that honored veterans like me. And to make matters worse, the RRF had run out of money.

I hesitated to share my story because my service is an honor, and I don’t want to abuse it for personal gain. So many people have sacrificed more for this country. However, I feel I have a duty to be a voice for others who have suffered the same fate with RRF.

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RRF’s initial funding only helped about a third of eligible restaurants that applied. More than 12,000 of the restaurants that were left in the dark are in Texas, and business conditions have only deteriorated since then. Not only has the omicron variant weakened critical holiday season sales, we continue to deal with supply chain disruptions, inflation and labor shortages that make it incredibly difficult to threshold profitability.

Many restaurants have been forced to close, and many more are barely holding on, drowning in the new debts they have racked up to survive.

As a small business operator, particularly in the restaurant industry, I expected challenges. And even as a veteran, I didn’t expect special treatment. But when the government requires your business to shut down and lose money for months, then creates a program to help you recoup only a portion of the losses, you at least expect to be treated fairly.

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The RRF did not treat me fairly. And it doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts people in my community who depend on my family’s restaurants. It hurts us financially, to the point that our businesses may not be able to survive this pandemic.

It’s a heartbreaking truth to admit after nearly two years of struggle, but I know it’s the truth for me and for thousands of people like me.

The RRF did not treat me fairly. And it doesn’t just hurt me, it hurts people in my community who depend on my family’s restaurants. It hurts us financially, to the point that our businesses may not be able to survive this pandemic.

I must also admit that the harm goes beyond finances, adding yet another setback to a two-year cycle that has had a physical, mental and emotional impact on all of us who are worried not just for ourselves, but for all those who depend on us.

There is a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington, DC who recognize the injustice of this situation and want to reconstitute the RRF. There is disagreement on how best to do this, whether we should find new funds or reallocate existing funds.

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To every legislator, I mean on behalf of myself, my family’s businesses, and the other 177,000 eligible local restaurants who have not received RIF funding: please make this a priority now.

We cannot let politics or apathy stop us as a nation from righting a wrong that continues to harm small businesses and families in every community across the United States. We need to replenish the RRF immediately.

Brandon Luke is the majority partner of HattenLuke Hospitality Group, a family-run restaurant and events team based in Dallas that currently operates four restaurant concepts: The Woolworth, Smithy on Henderson, Uno Mas Henderson and Uno Mas Downtown. Luke was honorably discharged from the United States Army after serving for six years.

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