Four Annapolis restaurant owners discuss surviving COVID-19 with Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris
Danielle Ohl, The Capital Gazette
Four Annapolis restaurant owners who overcame hurdles to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic met Tuesday morning with second gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.
Emhoff, the nation’s first second gentleman, has been traveling the country as an ambassador for the Biden administration, encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, raising awareness about various pandemic relief packages such as the American Rescue Plan and drumming up support for President Joe Biden’s jobs plan, an ambitious $2 trillion proposal.
Emhoff joined the business owners for a listening session at the Annapolis Maritime Museum on Tuesday. The restauranteurs talked about the challenges they faced in deciding whether to remain open or shifting their business to takeout, the help they received from federal assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program and how they joined forces to assist others in the community.
“I think the stat was 400,000 small businesses have closed,” Emhoff said. “And we’ve heard about other museums closing. This one has done well. But that’s been the story, as I saw with my own eyes, traveling the country.”
As the discussion began, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley thanked the Biden/Harris administration for its focus on small business recovery.
”We still have to get through this year,” said Buckley, himself a restaurant owner. “There’s a big hole that we have to fill. So we truly appreciate you keeping a focus on this, and we look forward to you coming back here.”
Emhoff said he and Harris came to Annapolis to get out of their home during the pandemic but noted that this was his first event without masks designed to slow the spread of COVID. Harris will return to Annapolis next week to address graduating midshipmen at Naval Academy commissioning.
Spencer Jones, one of the four Annapolis business owners present, took over his family’s business, Chick & Ruth’s Delly on Main Street, after his father died suddenly in January. He said PPP loans helped assure the decades-old business would survive.
Now, the business owners said they are facing the rising cost of products and difficultly finding enough staff. Jones said he is raising the salaries of some of his employees to help keep them on board.
“As more businesses open, we compete with corporations that provide benefits to employees,” said Roxana Rodriguez, co-owner of Caliente Grill. When the pandemic hit, she and her husband were forced to let their entire staff go, closing on March 16, 2020. They thought their Forest Drive business might never reopen.
Instead, she worked with Monica Alvarado and Feed Arundel to donate meals to those in need. After receiving a PPP loan and support through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, her business brought back its 12 employees.
Joel and Colleen Bunker, owners of Brown Mustache Coffee on Maryland Avenue, stayed open through the pandemic to keep employees on the payroll. In addition to receiving PPP loans to help keep their doors open, they also received support through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. But they see difficulties on the horizon, Joel Bunker said, especially with a newly opened West Street restaurant operating on precarious margins.
“I’m hopeful and scared at the same time,” he said.
Alvarado, owner of Bread and Butter Kitchen, was initially forced to scale back hours of operation of her Eastport business but was able to return to full time with the help of PPP loans.
Emhoff took time at the start of the event to tour the Annapolis Maritime Museum, which received aid from the Paycheck Protection Program.
It was led by Museum Executive Director Alice Estrada, who explained three new exhibits that highlight the city’s waterfront industry, the history of the oyster economy and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Also among those joining Emhoff at the museum were U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes and Small Business Administration Administrator Isabel Guzman.
Emhoff thanked Cardin for his leadership in getting the recovery plan through Congress.
“The administration knows full well that small business has been hit hard,” he said. “But small business can’t recover until the country recovers.”
”That’s why we need to pass the American Jobs Plan.”
As part of the rescue plan approved by Congress, the SBA launched the Restaurant Revitalization Fund on May 5 with $28.6 billion to provide restaurants and other food and beverage businesses with funding equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss.
In the first two weeks, the program received more than 300,000 applications representing over $69 billion in requested funds, the White House said Tuesday. Nearly $6 billion in funds has been awarded, including $127 million for more than 800 restaurants and bars in Maryland.
The Paycheck Protection Program, launched under President Donald Trump, was revamped and expanded by the Biden administration with an additional $7.25 billion to support small businesses and nonprofits. It changed the program to set aside help for the smallest of businesses, including sole-proprietors, independent contractors and other self-employed individuals.
Cardin had the last word during the discussion, saying loans for very small businesses and new restaurants are a priority for the Biden/Harris team and Congress. He called Annapolis indicative of Main Street America, the “real” small businesses Congress is trying to help.
”Your feedback really helps us because you are the targets we’re trying to help,” Cardin said.
After the event ended, Emhoff and others headed for Alvarado’s nearby restaurant for a meal on the water with Attorney General Brian Frosh.