Memphis restaurants benefit from federal PPP funding, but some more than others


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – No industry has been hit as hard as restaurants during the pandemic. The federal government passed law that supports two paycheck protection programs for granting unsuccessful loans. But as a WREG investigation found The program hasn’t helped every restaurant in the same way.

The rendezvous staff had to learn to spin and adjust during the pandemic. The Memphis Barbecue Mainstay has been open since 1948, but there were three times in 2020 when the dining room closed due to COVID-19.

“It was crazy, but we did it,” said server Calvin Bell.

Bell has been with Rendezvous for 31 years. He is grateful for how the restaurant management dealt with the uncertainty.

“Everyone is wondering what would happen next. But the way Anna had made it available and would explain it to everyone kept us away from needles and pens, ”he said.

Anna Blair is part of the third generation of the Vergos family who own and run Rendezvous.

“Last year has been very difficult financially,” said Blair.

Blair is a lawyer but now works in restaurant management. She processed her application for the Paycheck Protection Program, which she described as lifesaving.

“The process for the PPP loan was long,” said Blair.

But it was worth it, because all of the restaurants in downtown Memphis have had the most successful business: more than $ 750,000 in the first round and more than $ 1 million in the second round. WREG analyzed the federal data compiled by Pro Publica.

“I was surprised,” she said. “Just seeing that number is huge.”

But realistically she expected it thanks to the PPP formula. In 2020 they multiplied their monthly wages by two and a half and in 2021 by three and a half.

“The only thing we did to get the PPP loan was the salary and health insurance numbers,” she said. “It was a stroke of luck for us. We were able to get our most important rendezvous employees back on full pay. “

“It went well. It was a blessing too,” said Bell.

Some restaurants at a disadvantage

Just a few steps from the rendezvous is another restaurant with a completely different experience.

Arturo Azcarate is a Panamanian immigrant who opened his Curry N Jerk restaurant on Monroe Avenue in 2018. He has since dealt with an electric fire that closed the restaurant for nine months, and then dealt with the constant challenges and adjustments of the pandemic.

“We had to shorten our lunch break and we also had to shorten working hours as we were only open from 5 to 8 am for three hours due to the city’s time frame,” said Azcarate.

He knew he had a disadvantage with the PPP formula.

“I didn’t have a good income base because I was never open enough to be eligible for maybe more than what I thought,” he said.

In fact, even Azcarate, the owner, isn’t on Curry N Jerk’s payroll.

“I don’t have the money to pay myself what I think is worth. At the end of the day, everything I do goes back to this business to keep it afloat, ”said Azcarate.

Of all of the downtown restaurants, Azcarate’s PPP funding is below the bottom 20 percent. He got about $ 43,000.

“It didn’t cover my payroll the way I imagined it would,” Azcarate said.

Hope Credit Union‘s Cassandra Williams said many business owners were frustrated with the process like Azcarate. Hope, which aims to help low income businesses, has been based in Memphis since 2004.

“Especially with our black-owned companies, having challenges knowing what to file,” said Williams.

She said there is a knowledge gap fueled by historical exclusion that affects generations.

“Because we are able to go to a financial institution and get help or get resources that you need, we didn’t have that access,” Williams said.

Studies show that businesses in colored districts were last in line to get PPP loans across the country. Some didn’t get it at all.

In this local example, Azcarate said he had to rely on himself and make a call to a faceless national bank.

“I have Bank of America and they really haven’t done anything,” he said.

“Did you have any help with the application?” we asked.

“No, I haven’t. I’ve read a lot,” he said.

However, Rendezvous, the 73-year-old company, had long-standing local resources.

“We worked with a local banker here who was great. Obviously our accountants, our payroll, our lawyers to make sure we’re doing the right things and filling out the right forms, ”Blair said.

Even so, at Curry N Jerk, Azcarate said he could use a lot of help.

“I used it to pay my employees. I used it for utility and rent expenses, ”he said.

And his financial situation is improving; He said they are starting to grow the dining room business.

Throughout all of this, he will continue to do what he knows best: work hard and stay positive.

“We can do it and survive. We could use more, we can do more and the community can do more for us, ”he said.

Rendezvous owners said both PPP loans were granted.

Azcarate said his first loan has been granted and he is still waiting to hear about his second.

About a week after WREG interviewed Azcarate for this story, we learned that he had a heart attack followed by emergency surgery. Family members tell us they stop by to keep Curry N Jerk open while he recovers in the hospital.

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