TUPELO • When Zell Long and her son, Jason, opened a Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe franchise five years ago, they envisioned the restaurant packed with diners looking for authentic fare that was kind not only to their health, but to their wallets.
While business hasn’t quite reached the levels they’d hoped, the COVID-19 pandemic slammed shut any ideas that 2020 would be a breakout year.
“It’s been challenging – that’s one word for it,” Zell Long said.
The Longs, like most every other restaurant operator, closed their eatery on March 15, putting some 30 people out of work. It wasn’t until late May that Taziki’s reopened, but only to curbside dining.
“We were able to open back up with a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but since we could only do curbside, we could only bring back about half of the employees,” Long said.
As statewide restrictions have eased somewhat, restaurants can now open to half-capacity. For Taziki’s, that translates to a maximum of about 60 people. About the only time the restaurant is packed, however, is on Sunday afternoon.
“People are steadily coming back, which is good, and we truly appreciate it,” she said.
But a half-full restaurant – which is better than 25% or no dine-in at all – doesn’t help cover all the expenses. Zell Long estimates business is about 70% of what it was before the pandemic.
Is that enough to keep the doors open?
According to restaurant industry experts, tens of thousands of restaurants nationwide have closed, and many more – as much as 40% – could close by the end of the year. The low margins of the industry, compounded with restricted seating, is not doing anyone any favors. Billions of dollars in revenue has been lost, and the figure could reach anywhere from $100 billion to $200 billion according to some estimates.
For businesses struggling to stay open, there’s not much relief in sight.
“I asked Jason if we’re able to pay the bills without having to go into our pockets, and unfortunately, the answer is ‘no,’” Zell Long said.
In addition to the federal PPP program, other financial aid programs have been made available. The nonprofit Mississippi 30-Day Fund provides forgivable loans for Mississippi-based small businesses, intended to provide immediate financial assistance.
But the state has a much larger pot of money to lend.
On May 20, the Back to Business Mississippi Grant Program was rolled out, with $240 million set aside to help small businesses with 50 or fewer employees recover economically from COVID-19. The money was part of a $1.25 billion federal aid package, and $40 million was set aside for eligible minority business enterprises, which include women and racial minorities.
But many small businesses say they’ve yet to hear anything about their applications, and the Mississippi Development Authority, which is overseeing the program via a private contractor, said it plans to close out the program by the end of the month.
Kris Del Grande opened Downunder pub, a cocktail bar and grill in downtown Tupelo, at the start of the year but closed in late March. He reopened on a limited scale in April, and sold his boat and applied for several loans, including PPP and a Back to Business Mississippi grant.
“I applied the day it was opened. A month later, the email said I put in the wrong tax ID number,” Del Grande said. “Others I spoke with had the same email. I put in my social security number and still no correspondence. I called and they told me it was in the processing stage. That’s what they told me months ago when I called to check the status.”
As of Wednesday, Del Grande still hadn’t heard a thing.
“Nothing. Just silence,” he said.
MDA said the grant program is a time-consuming process, and they’re reviewing and approving hundreds a day.
As of Sept. 1, more than 32,000 businesses had registered for the Back to Business program, with 17,230 applications submitted. Over 12,000 had been reviewed, but 7,000 emails were sent notifying applicants to send corrected tax information in late August.
Of the 12,000 reviewed, more than 7,000 had been approved, while 2,054 were deemed ineligible. Nearly 6,000 checks have been mailed, totaling nearly $22 million – just over 10% of the available funds.
As for minority- and women-owned businesses, they comprise about 54% of all applications, MDA said.
In mid-August, the program was tweaked, upping the $1,500 base payment to $3,500. Also, the businesses eligible for automatic payments of $2,000 had been broadened to include bakeries, bars, music promoters, sports promoters, caterers, scenic sightseeing and more, and if they participated in the PPP, those amounts won’t be counted against them when applying for a Back to Business grant.
For Zell Long, the wait for economic relief is an exercise in patience.
“We got the automatic response that they received our application and it was under review, but we haven’t heard back from them since then,” she said. “It was within that first week that we applied.”
But is she feeling frustrated, four months after the program was introduced?
“I used to work with the city, so I know how slow things can be,” she said with a chuckle. “And with issues with the workforce, I can understand the lack of employees, the extra work involved, and this is just something new added to their plate. But if someone would just call and let us know. Just waiting and not knowing is difficult.”
Editor’s note: Zell Long is a member of the Daily Journal’s editorial board.