Why N.J.’s big program for restaurants/bars may not be (anywhere close to) big enough

Program could give smaller restaurants grants of up to $20K. Halvorsen, however, said more capacity would have greater impact

Marilou Halvorsen repeatedly said the words “grateful” and “appreciative.”

As head of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, she was thrilled to hear Gov. Phil Murphy is directing $35 million toward her industry — clearly the hardest-hit sector in the economy.

But, while thanking the administration, she was quick to use a different phrase: “Not enough.”

The board of the state’s Economic Development Authority is expected to approve Wednesday morning a grant program that will enable restaurants and bars — defined as “food services and drinking places” — to get a grant of up to $20,000, depending on their size.

It’s the biggest grant program the state has done for small businesses.

Tim Sullivan. (File photo)

EDA head Tim Sullivan told ROI-NJ that you can expect the guidelines to feature three buckets (small, medium and large) of FTEs (which is full-time equivalents, not full-time employees).

  • 5 employees or fewer: Up to $10,000;
  • 6 to 25 employees: Up to $15,000;
  • 26-50 employees: Up to $20,000;
  • More than 50: Ineligible.

Here’s where the first issue likely will come up: How do you count employees in an industry that relies on so many part-timers working a wide range of hours?

Sullivan said there will be provisions for counting part-timers.

“You will get partial credit for part-timers,” he said.

And, while that may help the smallest shops (pushing them over five employee “equivalents”), Halvorsen thinks the rest will be attempting to limit their manpower totals.

“That total will make most restaurants ineligible,” she said. “It takes a lot of people to even open a medium-sized business. Having 80 employees is probably just a good-size bar and grill. And no one would consider that to be a big business.”

Again, Halvorsen stressed that she is grateful that some aid is being made available — and is appreciative that the Governor’s Office reached out to her for recommendations. But, she said her industry is looking reality in the face.

“This obviously isn’t going to make a difference regarding whether a restaurant stays open,” she said. “I appreciate them giving us money — and I don’t want to seem ungrateful — but it’s certainly not going to keep restaurants from closing. This is not going to be the thing that’s going to do it.”

One thing would. And it won’t cost the state a dime: greater capacity.

“Getting restaurants opened to a higher capacity would be even more impactful,” she said. “We can’t stay at 25% capacity. If we stay at 25% with outdoor dining going away, the amount of money it’s going to take to save this industry is going to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Let’s use common sense here.”

Halvorsen said the data is the side of the restaurants.

She points to the fact that neighboring states have increased capacity without issues. And she stresses that the industry is the largest employer in the state.

Then there’s this: “It’s the industry, that unequivocally, has been impacted the most,” she said. “You can’t argue that.”

So, Halvorsen thanks the administration profusely. And politely asks for more.

“We, of course, appreciate any financial support that the industry can get,” she said. “However, you have to realize that the small business community really is the economic driver of our economy. And this is not going to be enough to fix the problem.”

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