Top U.S. chefs seek restaurant help from Congress

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Top chefs including Tom Colicchio on Monday wrote to the U.S. Congress, seeking more help for independent restaurants amid the coronavirus crisis, including changes to the small-business rescue loan program they say does not work as intended.

The group, called the Independent Restaurant Coalition, said its members need longer repayment periods, a different time frame for use and access to a bigger pot of funding, among other requests.

“We’re not looking for a bailout,” said Colicchio, who co-founded New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. “We’re looking to get back to work.”

The request comes as the U.S. government’s $350 billion small-business emergency program entered its fourth day on Monday, plagued by ongoing technology and processing problems that are delaying disbursements.

Restaurateurs and other desperate owners of tens of thousands of businesses - many shuttered for weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak - had inundated lenders on Friday amid frustration that basic details were still being finalized less than 12 hours before the program launched.

The Paycheck Protection Program, as it is called, is flawed “when it comes to businesses that already shut down, which the majority of us have,” Naomi Pomeroy, owner of Beast restaurant in Portland, Oregon, said during a press call on Monday. “It’s just kind of a nightmare the way it’s set up.”

The loans should be extended to three months after restaurants are allowed to reopen - instead of eight weeks from they get the funding, the group said in its letter.

That is because many shuttered restaurants may not be open again in eight weeks, so they would just have to lay off workers again.

The total size of the program should be expanded beyond the current $350 billion, and a gross revenue cap of $500 million should be reinstated, to help the program not run out of money, according to the letter.

“This cap was meant to separate the small, independent restaurants from other large, well-capitalized businesses that have infinitely more resources,” the letter said.

The program should also allow repayment over 10 years, not the two years currently in the law.

The letter also called for a Restaurant Stabilization Fund of up to $100 billion to help pay vendors and related costs, new tax rebates for rent and employment expenses and mandated insurance coverage for business interruption claims related to the coronavirus.

Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Alistair Bell