Restaurant Rally sent checks of at least $10,000 to 289 Pierce County restaurants

Restaurant Rally sent checks of at least $10,000 to 289 Pierce County restaurants
Vien Dong was one of 289 restaurants that participated in the Pierce County Restaurant Rally. A small sign hangs in the window in support of the diner discount program. (Kristine Sherred, The News Trib)

TACOMA, Wash. — Nearly 300 full-service restaurants received a slice of $7.5 million in CARES Act funding as part of a county program that reimbursed them for extending a 30 percent discount to diners.

A final tally of the Pierce County Restaurant Rally indicates these restaurants reported $6.38 million in sales over 10 days in November. About 60 percent of 485 eligible full-service restaurants, open prior to March 23, 2020, participated.

In the first week, Nov. 8-12, 252 restaurants were reimbursed for $3.16 million in sales, according to county data. The promotion was then interrupted by a statewide ban on indoor dining.

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As restaurants scrambled to buy tents and heaters, the second week, Nov. 15-19, funneled largely through takeout orders. Despite an additional 37 businesses on the list, overall sales barely budged, reaching $3.22 million eligible for reimbursement.

The county had earmarked $100,000 for marketing, which in part built a dedicated website visited 43,000 times in its first eight days online, according to a Dec. 11 status report from the Economic Development Department. That left $1.02 million in the pot.

To ensure the full $7.5 million allocation fulfilled its purpose — supporting full-service restaurants, a sector reeling from months of pandemic restrictions — the council voted in mid-December to double the minimum reimbursement amount, from $5,000 to $10,000. Council member Marty Campbell pushed for the update. The maximum a restaurant would receive remained at $90,000.

The increase benefited 88 restaurants, according to council spokesperson Brynn Grimley.

“There will not be leftover funding because Council wanted it all to go to the restaurants,” she told The News Tribune in an email in late December.

Betty Capestany, director of the county’s economic development department, said her team reviewed receipts at the end of each week and sent reimbursement checks immediately. The jump to a $10,000 minimum sent another $311,000 to restaurants.

Applications show that a third of the nearly 300 restaurants are owned by people of color, 37 percent by women and 4 percent by veterans, she said in a phone call.

With the assistance of dual-language interns, outreach to community groups and, in some cases, in-person visits to the businesses themselves, “We wanted to make sure there no barriers to participation,” she said. Travel Tacoma, several chambers of commerce and the Washington Hospitality Association also pitched in marketing and manpower.

The list reached most corners of the county and a diversity of cuisines, but the largest category, according to the program website at the time, was American/Pizza/Burgers.

The ordinance, introduced in early October by Vice Chair Dave Morell, had been amended twice: first to formally cover both takeout and in-person dining and then to increase the reimbursement percentage from half to 100 percent.

The discount to diners was intended to be applied automatically.

The News Tribune fielded several inquiries from concerned customers who said they had to ask for the discount or did not receive it at all. Grimley said the Economic Development Department “has the proper checks and balances in place to make sure receipts submitted included the 30 percent discount, and thus were eligible for the full, 100 percent reimbursement.”

PIERCE COUNTY RESTAURANT RALLY EFFECTS

Deanna Bender-Hicks, owner of the 20-year-old Over the Moon Cafe, said she was grateful to the county for its efforts.

“It did uptick us a nice, substantial amount,” she told The News Tribune in a phone call last month, to the point that sales neared a typical week in November — one of the Opera Alley restaurant’s busiest months; that is, until the indoor dining ban came along.

“It tanked, and it tanked hard,” she said.

In University Place, Rik Filion and his wife Malaty Lim of Thirsty Hound Drinkery partook in Week 2 of the program. Because the couple opened their neighborhood bar and restaurant last February, they have been ineligible for most other relief programs, which tend to require at least a year of operation prior to the onset of the pandemic in March.

Some residents and lawmakers, including council member Derek Young, argued that a simpler solution would send money directly to restaurants, paperwork aside.

Capestany admitted that some applicants pulled out for one reason or another, while others simply opted out entirely.

Nor was every kind of restaurant eligible: The ordinance relied on the industry code system used for federal statistics, called NAICS. A limited-service restaurant differs here from a full-service restaurant.

For those that did participate, the reimbursement helped more than a loan, but perhaps not as much as rent relief.

As Filion told The News Tribune in an email, “We don’t need loans, we are just hoping for assistance to offset our loss in sales, and to cover some of our larger bills, in particular our restaurant rent.”

Thirsty Hound was, after months of negotiating, approved for one of the county’s rent relief programs.

Capestany considers the Restaurant Rally a success “under the circumstances,” and said the county has fielded inquiries about it from other Washington districts and a state legislator. The pioneer, though, is likely the U.K., which offered a nationwide discount in August that sent £849 million ($1.15 billion) back to 49,000 restaurants.

“They all got more customers or greater awareness,” she said, “and I’m hoping that still trickles down.”

Washington state’s new COVID-19 plan called “Healthy Washington,” announced Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee, continues a ban on indoor dining until a region reaches certain health metrics. When approved for this new Phase 2, it can return — but only at 25 percent capacity.