In 2018, Crystal Springs’ Robby Younes founded Heart to Harvest with the “original mission of preserving New Jersey’s family farms by educating the public on the importance of supporting local farmers, raising awareness on the struggles they face, and helping to keep farming families on their land.”
Then the coronavirus hit the state, bringing with it a more immediate—and quite possibly more permanent—threat to the restaurant industry globally. While the federal government offered solutions like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPB), the result hasn’t been rescue so much as confusion, with big chain restaurants like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris at first qualifying for $10 and $20 million aid grants respectively where smaller restaurants were floundering.
As someone with a prescience for development causes (Younes also founded the New Jersey Wine & Food Festival), Younes saw the gap in assistance almost instantly, putting together what would become the Restaurant Rescue Fund (RRF) as early as eight weeks ago. The goal is simple: “to help as many restaurateurs reopen as possible,” by allowing restaurateurs in the New Jersey/New York area to apply for grants, with application submissions starting May 15.
Grants will average $25,000, though an emphasis will be put on essential micro-grants of around $5,000. The RRF’s fundraising goal for 2020 is $10 million, which means a lot of potential help for the restaurant industry we know and love. We caught up with Younes, who is busy but also seemingly indefatigable, to ask about the application process, who’s doing the reviewing, and why he believes this segment of the restaurant industry is vital to our culinary future.
Table Hopping: Why aren’t some federal relief programs enough for smaller-scale New Jersey restaurateurs?
Robby Younes: This mess with the Paycheck Protection Plan and the Small Business Administration—that’s not going to help anybody. You get two-and-a-half times the February payroll, which for many restaurants is an off-season or a slow month. And 75 percent of it will only be granted if it’s spent in the next eight weeks, which doesn’t make any sense when places are closed. And if you don’t spend it, it turns into a loan—it isn’t forgiven! So say you get $10,000 in assistance, you get $7,500 to go to payroll only, and that’s only $2,500 left to go to rent and utilities. How are you going to make it? Any restaurateur knows their biggest expense in a hot area is rent, not payroll.
TH: The Restaurant Rescue Fund was created to assist a certain sector of small restaurateur. What would happen to them, without any help?
RY: Based on our information, 52,000 restaurants between New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are not going to be able to reopen.
TH: Where do you get this info?
RY: From our online questionnaire for restaurateurs, for one. And from our people right now sitting in on every single real estate webinar, investment webinar, hedge fund webinar. And we’re looking at bigger lessons as well, like Europe. Italy’s already proven it: 50,000 restaurants and bars might not reopen. And yes, this information is going to continue to change, but for now the answer is bad. And there is not one restaurateur we’ve spoken with that got forgiveness on their rent.
TH: Really? Nothing? You hear stories of understanding kind of happening across the board.
RY: The interesting part that makes it extremely bad for restaurateurs—they’re getting deferrals, not forgiveness. “Don’t pay me rent for the next two months. In September, you’ll pay everything.” But then how are you going to come up with all that money? Everyone says “Thank you” and kicks the can down the street, but that can is gonna come back and eat them alive financially.
TH: You’ve heard from restaurants. You’re actively collecting info on your site. What can you tell us about how they see their survival prospects as Covid-19 restrictions go on?
RY: Many are saying if this continues past June, we’re not gonna make it. And many, we’ve learned, have misinterpreted the PPP law and how to utilize the money. They’re using it like a normal loan, like the government just gave them a no-restrictions gift.
TH: You founded Heart to Harvest in 2018, to help farmers struggling against massive development. When did you pivot to this project?
RY: We changed strategies in the last eight weeks.
TH: That’s pretty early, considering.
RY: I saw it coming. I saw that restaurants, specifically small, private restaurants, would be greatly impacted. These are chefs full of passion. These are not big hedge fund guys or a big entity, a chain that has the legal team giving them advice. They don’t have a huge payroll than can claim either, like Ruth’s Chris. When this started, I saw that private, small, local restaurants were going to suffer. And here we go.
TH: In the interest of counteracting that, how does the application work? I’m sure restaurateurs reading this are going to want to apply. One condition is you have to have five restaurants or fewer in New Jersey, New York City, Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties. What else can you tell us?
RY: It opens May 15. We’ll keep it open for three or four weeks. We’re not gonna put a limitation here. The application is very short and sweet. Most of the chefs…we know them and work with them. But we do want to let any restaurateur applying know that we are coming from the industry. We’re not strangers to this. We’re not some financiers that see the restaurant like a headache. They’re our family. We’re going to be extremely patient reviewing every single item. The questions are going to be extremely sensitive to them and fair. We’re coming from the same DNA. So they’ll be in good hands.
TH: Speaking of “we,” who is on the advisory board that will be reviewing the applications?
RY: We’re finalizing that now. We have two colleges, with MBA programs. One of them is involved with MIT. We have a legal team. Personnel from the finance world and banking. Interestingly enough we have a couple medical people. We’re bringing in a different segmentation from every sector. A food distributor. A nationwide liquor distributor. Without any favoritism, from every sector we’re looking to have one or two advisors, aiming for a total of twelve. Right now we have five, including a food distributor and a very well-known doctor—this doctor has operated on, like, every well-known chef in the world. He’s known in the culinary community. And we have a legal lawyer who’s led many restaurateurs. We should have the board finalized in the next five business days.
TH: Does anyone get paid?
RY: This is 100 percent volunteer. Totally.
TH: It’s also interesting that the application says you’ll provide “ongoing” support. What does that mean?
RY: One thing we all know: giving a restaurateur money doesn’t mean he or she is going to make it. He or she can misuse it. They might be discouraged and scared to use it, they might be taken advantage of by a landlord. So we’ll have this committee to evaluate business, determine good practices for a restaurant, who in turn might really wake up and be educated on how to open right—and stay open.
TH: What gave you so much passion for this sector of restaurants, specifically? Obviously it’s vital, but you really seem to recognize it as the lifeblood of the New Jersey culinary industry.
RY: I spoke with so many restaurateurs. Just listening to them—how much is your payroll, your rent. So many had no idea. Especially smaller, privately-owned restaurants, where people are working for free because it’s their restaurant. So we’re finding a lot of education is needed at the same time. I believe they have amazing passion. They’re experts on how to deliver this experience. They are born as hospitality individuals, genetically. They just need that tweak, with business. And the second important thing that no one is really paying attention to or talking about: if these restaurants close, our social lives suffer.
TH: And you have a personal interest and a focus in New Jersey, specifically, I’d assume?
RY: Since 2008, when I stepped into New Jersey from Manhattan, one of the biggest challenges was there were maybe only a dozen highly legit restaurants. I mean they’re genuinely chef-driven, using locally grown ingredients. Top quality, true chef-restaurateur spots. Besides the classic restaurants, of course. We worked so hard for 12 years to bring culinary attention to New Jersey, through our Wine & Food Festival, through our Beer Festival. All these steps that took place in New Jersey by so many individuals, not just us, it would be such a shame to see it go. Especially the new generation, millennials, small-scale entrepreneurs opening a small shack with amazing ingredients, high quality food—it would be terrible to see them disappear.
Applications for the Restaurant Rescue Fund will be accepted starting May 15. Meanwhile the organization is asking restaurant owners for feedback on how they’re doing during Covid-19 through an online questionnaire here. The fund, FYI, is not first-come, first-served but based on evaluation by the advisory board. Per the website, “priority will be given to restaurants that work with small farms.” Also important to note: funds aren’t immediately dispersed. “Grants will be issued as government mandates for restaurant closures are lifted.” Tax-deductible donations to the fund—of any amount, for the love of the Jersey restaurant scene—can be made here.Click here to leave a comment