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Lawsuits Put Women & BIPOC Restaurateurs Waiting On Federal Aid In Financial Limbo

Restaurant staff smiling and in conversation between plating dishes.
Courtesy of Gregory León
Restaurant owner Gregory León (bottom right) chats with Amilinda staff in-between plating dishes.

Earlier this year, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund was approved to support struggling small businesses. The fund required applications from businesses that were at least 51% owned by women, veterans or people considered "socially or economically disadvantaged" be prioritized for the first 21 days. After that, applicants who did not fall under these categories would be considered.

However, nearly 3,000 restaurant owners who identify as women, veterans, and/or as people of color have yet to receive their approved funding from the Small Business Administration (SBA). Lawsuits filed by conservative law groups are claiming the prioritization efforts were discriminatory have caused the pause in federal aid.

Gregory León is the owner of Amilinda, a Spanish and Portuguese restaurant located in Milwaukee. He is one of the nearly 3,000 restaurateurs affected by these lawsuits.

"This isn’t necessarily a handout. We essentially were getting money that we lost because of the pandemic," León explains. "This is money that we certainly would have been having if we had been open and doing a regular dinner service."

As the country starts to relax COVID-19 restrictions, León still cannot afford to open at full capacity. "This is money that can bring in more staff. ... This is money that's going to give much deserved raises to the staff we already have," he says. "This is money that's going to local growers and producers. ... This is money that we're putting back into our community."

One of the many lawsuits was filed by the conservative legal group Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL). The group filed on behalf of Antonio Vitolo, a restaurant owner based in Tennessee. The lawsuit claimed that Vitolo, who is white and male, did not receive a fair chance to receive recovery funds because of his race.

Rick Esenberg, the president and general counsel of WILL, says that it was unconstitutional for there to have been a race-based or gender-based preference in the application process. "The problem that Antonio had is that he wanted to participate in the program, he would otherwise qualify ... but he was being denied the opportunity based upon his race and gender," he says.

Vitolo has received federal aid from the SBA, while restaurant owners like León hasn't received their approved funding from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

"I've spoken to other restaurants around the country, there's days were we just really feel like nobody cares," León says. "Restaurant workers give up a lot of their own lives for other people, ... it feels like nobody cares like restaurants and restaurant workers are expendable."

At the time of publication, the SBA was no longer receiving applications for the fund. The SBA also recently announced that they will be closing the Restaurant Revitalization Fund portal on July 14.

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin has publicly advocated for a bipartisan effort to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

León says that ordering from and visiting restaurants like Amilinda helps, but he emphasizes that people call their local government representatives. "Tell them that you want them to back to replenish [the Restaurant Revitalization Fund] that is the biggest thing everybody can do right now," he says.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
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