Schumer seeking $25 billion in grants to struggling restaurants

ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks Monday at TORO Cantina in Colonie. Listening at left is chef and owner Jaime Ortiz. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks Monday at TORO Cantina in Colonie. Listening at left is chef and owner Jaime Ortiz.


COLONIE — Restaurants would receive grants of up to $5 million each under an amendment proposed for the massive COVID stimulus package being negotiated in Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., sought the change to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion measure, and he came to a Wolf Road restaurant on Monday to make the case for it.

TORO Cantina is a particularly striking example of what’s happened to restaurants in New York in the last 11 months; it had to shut down just eight hours after a grand opening that was two years in the making.

When it was allowed to reopen for sit-down dining, with limited hours and seating capacity, owner/chef Jaime Ortiz said, the workforce was gutted — not just in numbers but in skill. About half of those whom the restaurant had invested time and money training didn’t come back.

“Nobody has been struggling more than restaurants,” Schumer said. “We know how important our restaurants are to the Capital Region and all of New York’s economy.

It’s jobs but it’s also the whole life — people want to come to the TORO Cantina to socialize and mix and mingle. It’s part of the whole life of a community.

“When restaurants are struggling and dying, a community struggles and dies.”

Across the state, 3,833 upstate restaurants have already closed because of COVID, he said.

Schumer said the Restaurants Act has bipartisan support and will offer $25 billion in support to the industry.

The Payroll Protection Program for small businesses, an earlier federal stimulus program, was not enough for restaurants, he said.

In the second quarter of 2020, the restaurant workforce in the Capital Region dropped 47% from a year earlier, Schumer said. (This was during the height of the pandemic restrictions — when restaurants had two choices, takeout-only or closure.)

A summary provided by Schumer’s office said the measure would:

  • Provide up to $5 million each to individually owned restaurants, brewpubs, taprooms and tasting rooms.
  • Provide up to $10 million each to restaurant groups with 20 or fewer locations (the goal is to not assist large chains, Schumer said).
  • Money can be used for expenses such as payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, utilities and food from Feb. 15, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2021.
  • Applicants must certify that they need the money because of the pandemic, and that they will use it only for the intended purposes, and that they will return whatever money they can’t use for those purposes.
  • Some $5 billion will be set aside for small restaurants, those with less than $500,000 in gross receipts in 2019.
  • Initial priority will be given to woman- and veteran-owned businesses, and to socially and economically disadvantaged businesses.

Help will not be immediate. Schumer said the goal is to have the restaurant assistance, and the rest of the stimulus package, on Biden’s desk by mid-March. After that, it will take the Small Business Administration some time to set up rules.

Ortiz, who also operates 677 Prime in Albany and Prime Burger in Troy, said his restaurants have struggled in the pandemic but have benefited somewhat in that diners are going for quality of experience rather than quantity during the pandemic — eating out less often and more selectively.

In a bit of an ironic twist, he had wondered what to do with all the wide-open space at 111 Wolf Road as TORO Cantina was in the planning and construction phase. It has proved invaluable during the pandemic, when tables had to be moved farther apart.

“We’re amongst a good number of restaurants that opened outside the timeline that would qualify them for PPP loans,” Ortiz said. “This would be a great, welcome relief.

“All of us that are really passionate about this business have been heartbroken about what [the pandemic has] done to the thing that we’ve dedicated our lives to. My heart goes out to everybody that’s struggling.”

TORO is down to 74 full- and part-time employees from a pre-COVID workforce of 120.

“I look forward to better days,” Ortiz said.

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