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A Black Restaurant Owner Rips Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s COVID-19 Relief Efforts

As restaurants begin to receive notices that they’ve earned $10,000 grants from the city, the owner of Grail Cafe asks why emergency relief efforts have taken so long

McCormick Place Convention Center In Chicago Turned In COVID-19 Field Hospital
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been the source of much criticism.
Photo by Tyler LaRiviere - Pool/Getty Images
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

On Monday, Chicago restaurant owners began receiving letters from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office informing them they were recipients of a $10,000 grant meant for COVID-19 relief. The city in November announced the Chicago Hospitality Grant Program, an initiative that redirected $10 million in federal funds toward restaurants and bars in the form of $10,000 grants.

Lightfoot’s letter to grant winners describes the effort as “providing emergency relief to independent bars and restaurants across Chicago.” It’s funded through the CARES Act; but unlike the federal Payment Protection Program (PPP), the city’s relief package is aimed at smaller venues. PPP funds have gone to Michelin-starred restaurants and both local and national chains. Megachurches have also taken advantage of the program.

Sheldrick Holmes admits he doesn’t have a James Beard Award and the recognition that comes with that type of honor. 5hat means his restaurant, Grail Cafe — which opened in January 2020 in Printer’s Row — needs more help than most, he says. Holmes posted a the letter Lightfoot’s office sent him on his Instagram account on Tuesday. The letter showed Grail Cafe had won a $10,000 grant. He says he’ll be using the money for luxuries such as paying his rent and employees. “We’re just trying to survive,” he says.

While $10,000 is better than nothing, business owners like Holmes have spent the year filling out several loan and grant applications during the pandemic, answering the same questions over and over again. Holmes tells Eater Chicago that he’s frustrated at how long the process has taken. “There’s no urgency to their emergency,” he says.

Holmes included a timeline on this Instagram post, starting with October 30, the date indoor dining stopped in Chicago due to a state safety mandate. Lightfoot announced the grant program in November 5, and the application deadline was November 23. The earliest funds may be available is December 29. In Holmes’ view, that’s too long to wait for restaurants that have respect COVID-19 rules and kept their dining rooms closed.

On Instagram, Holmes explains: “How is waiting 60 days for emergency relief funding helping with the emergency? It’s like calling 911 and saying I need an ambulance quickly... and waiting 60 days for the ambulance to show up.”

Other parts of the city, including Lakeview and Gold Coast, celebrated the success of Chicago’s expanded outdoor dining program. That’s when the city shut down roads to motor traffic to allow restaurants to set up tables and chairs in the middle of the street. Health experts pushed for the public to enjoy outdoor dining, as dining inside a restaurant poses a higher risk for spreading the novel coronavirus. The Grail Cafe could not take advantage of that expanded outdoor program, however: Holmes says he was treated to road construction along Dearborn that tore up the pavement from April through September. When that road work was completed, Grail Cafe’s patio customers were greeted to leftover debris that didn’t create a comfortable dining environment.

“Why would they do that to me during a pandemic?” Holmes asks.

In another Instagram post, Holmes, who worked in finance before graduating from Kendall College, writes about the challenges of being a Black restaurant owner. He writes Black-owned businesses don’t receive enough attention, mentioning a Chicago Tribune list of best sandwiches in the city that only included one restaurant with minority ownership. (Eater Chicago reviewed the list and counted six out of the 13 had BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color — owners; one was Black owned.) The larger point is the feeling that Black-owned restaurants don’t receive the proper exposure, that they don’t register on the city’s radar. Corporate America showed support in celebrating Juneteenth shortly after the first protests connected to George Floyd’s death. But that enthusiasm has waned during the holiday season, a full six months later, and few are talking about Kwanzaa with the same zeal. Holmes wants people understand that it takes a lot of effort to compete with the rest of world as a queer, Black man. He’s not looking for special treatment, only “to get to the level of everyone else.”

As reporters on Wednesday peppered Mayor Lightfoot about a Chicago Police Department incident last year showing officers mistakenly raiding a Black woman’s home, the City Council did take a few actions that could benefit restaurant and bar owners. Council members approved extending temporary measures, including the expanded outdoor dining program, through next year. According to a city news release, 450 bars and restaurants have used private parking lots, sidewalks, and closed streets to serve seated customers in 2020. Sidewalk cafe permits will also be discounted by 75 percent, and permits that would expire on February 28 will be automatically extended until June 1.

  • Hogsalt, Alinea, Gibsons Among Restaurants Receiving PPP of More Than $1 Million [Eater Chicago]
  • Celebrity pastor Joel Osteen’s megachurch received $4.4 million in PPP funds [NBC News]
  • 13 new sandwiches to take home today: How Chicago restaurants are cramming deliciousness between slices of bread to survive the pandemic economy [Tribune]
  • ‘You Have the Wrong Place:’ Body Camera Video Shows Moments Police Handcuff Innocent, Naked Woman During Wrong Raid [CBS Chicago]