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Austin restaurants are waiting for federal relief. Will it come in time?
photo by Stephanie Schwartz

"It all hits you so hard and so fast," Wu Chow owner Stuart Thomajan said. (Stephanie Schwartz)

Austin's Salt Lick restaurant got its start in 1967, when Thurman Roberts and his wife Hisako chose item number 14—sell barbecue— from their list of 54 ways to possibly make a living in the small town of Driftwood. Thurman built a barbecue pit and began selling meat on weekends.

A few months later, Thurmann and his sons added a screen porch for customers. The Roberts family business went on to become an Austin-area institution, and the family added restaurants in Round Rock and at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Two weeks ago, the Salt Lick restaurants shut their dining rooms and switched to take-out-only service after Austin officials ordered closures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Thurman's son Scott Roberts, who now runs the business, says it is the toughest challenge they have faced.

"We've been through oil embargoes in the '70s," he says. "We've been through recessions. But nothing compares to not being able to actually open up."

Roberts believes the Salt Lick restaurants will make it through the crisis, but he thinks many other restaurants will not be that fortunate.

"It is a shame, because it's not because of what they were doing," he says. "They were viable businesses when this started."

The $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was signed on Friday and is the single largest economic relief package in U.S. history, will include support for restaurants. Restaurant owners as well as their lawyers, accountants, bankers and insurers have been scrambling to understand the financial support offered to individual restaurants.

The bill will provide significant aid. The question is whether it will come quickly enough for restaurants to both support their employees and keep the infrastructure that will allow them to reopen when it is considered safe.

"It's going to help, no question," says Salt Lick Chief Financial Officer Silver Garza.

He says that after days of trying to interpret conflicting information from various sources, the Small Business Administration (SBA) released guidance and an application yesterday, making his path clearer.

"I'm a little more optimistic than I was earlier in the week," he says. "Now it's a function of: let's get it in and see how long it takes them to process it."

Garza says time is key. Restaurant owners need to make the next payroll.

The SBA will work with banks, which will collect information from owners and get the money to them.

Garza is glad he will be able to apply through the company's bank. He said he has been trying to apply on the SBA site for a $10,000 bridge loan, and the site has been overloaded at all times of day, including late at night.

Emily Williams Knight, CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says she has concerns about the SBA being able to process all of the loan requests. Overall, however, she says the bill is "a very aggressive step to get money into the hands of our restaurants."

Restaurant owners will be able to borrow up to 250% of the average monthly payroll cost they had in 2019, up to a maximum of $10 million. Loan money used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest and utilities over an eight-week period will not need to be paid back. The remaining amount can be paid back over the next 10 years, at an interest rate of not more than 4%.

Businesses that have had to close or have had sales drop more than 50% will have the option of taking a tax credit instead, which would cover 50% of employee salaries, up to $10,000 per employee.

Knight agrees that rapid payment is vital.

"We've had so many restaurants already close," she says.

Stuart Thomajan, partner in three Austin restaurants, has spent long days trying to work out his best move. He says he is getting emails about CARES from every lawyer, accountant and insurer in his business circles.

He closed his dine-in services at Swift's Attic, Wu Chow and Guild just before it became mandated and then stopped take-out service when he decided it, too, posed unacceptable health risks. He expects to be able to reopen, though he has concerns about lingering risks associated with gathering in groups as well as possible requirements for physical distancing between customers. For now, he has furloughed his employees.

"It's shattering," he says, adding that he sees his staff almost as family. "I have employees that have been with me for 10 years, eight years, six years."

He says keeping employees on the payroll would be possible if he knew how long it would take to receive money. The drop in revenue has been immediate for restaurant owners, leaving a gaping hole.

"It all hits you so hard and so fast," he says. "The speed at which this happens is mind-boggling."


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