Local restaurant owner battles pandemic with labor shortages, high food prices and no federal aid


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BROOKFIELD – Joe Attonito knew opening a brick and mortar restaurant during a pandemic would be difficult. What he hadn’t foreseen were the ripple effects and challenges over more than a year: staff shortages, spikes in food and material prices and a fire in the kitchen.

He also had no idea how difficult it would be to get help through federal grants and loans when he finally applied. Across the country, small businesses like Attonito have sought financial buffers to help them get through the first year of the pandemic, and again as they battle staff shortages and food price increases. But some small business owners still struggle to access funds made available through federal assistance programs.

One Tuesday morning, Attonito was already at his Federal Road restaurant, JJ Stacks, helping a customer, checking the kitchen, and putting on a coffee maker.

“He’s a con artist,” said a nurse in a lab coat, who waited for her order before heading to work on the street. ” It’s necessary to work hard. “

Attonito opened JJ Stacks, a restaurant that offers ‘everything’ homemade, including burgers, wings and hand-cut fries, in August 2020 after spotting the location earlier this spring.

“I really liked the potential,” he said. “Obviously we knew there was a risk. “

But the virus problems turned out to be just the beginning of the local entrepreneur’s problems.

Things started off strong over the summer before slowing down in October. With 50 percent capacity due to COVID restrictions, they could only use three tables inside and it was too cold to eat outside. Attonito has decided to close its doors until the end of April 2021.

But by the time it reopened, staff were hard to find, there was a shortage of needed equipment, and food prices were high. In short, everything was worse.

Despite constant posting on job boards, Attonito couldn’t find enough help. He started coming full time, leaving his sales job to cover the kitchen, checkout and restaurant.

Attonito said the reopening cost more than double the initial opening due to shortages and high prices. As food cost more, he suddenly couldn’t double his prices. He ended up paying out of pocket.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he says. “Our operating costs are skyrocketing.”

Finally, after dipping into his savings to run JJ Stacks, Attonito decided he needed to ask for help.

Ask for help

During the pandemic, the federal government offered various grants and loans to businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program (P3) and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Attonito was hoping to apply for another round of PPP funding, but as a brand new company he was automatically ineligible. Companies had to be operational by February 15, 2020 to qualify. In early May 2021, a month after it reopened, the SBA stopped accepting new applications.

“I am delisted immediately after opening in 2020,” Attonito said.

Attonito is also not eligible for traditional loans due to the bankruptcy of a sports bar in Ridgefield, Tiger’s Den Sports Bar and Grill, which prompted him to file for bankruptcy.

The US Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund was aimed at helping restaurants survive the pandemic.

Some, like Attonito, were frustrated that million-dollar businesses and corporate restaurant chains were relieved when little ‘mom and pop’ places struggled to access funds.

News from the nation’s restaurants found that the SBA had given emergency aid to franchisees of large restaurant chains like Jimmy John’s, Panera Bread, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Dunkin ‘, Buffalo Wild Wings and Chuck E Cheese.

The report also found that the largest grants went to things like wedding venues, airport concessions and other non-traditional businesses.

In Connecticut, an analysis of data by Hearst Connecticut found that there was $ 300 million donated to businesses in Connecticut, including nine Brookfield spots.

The two companies that received the most money in town are part of the same company. Fairfield Caterers Inc. received more than $ 897,000 and the Candlewood Inn, a popular wedding venue owned by the catering group, received approximately $ 1.8 million. On its LinkedIn page, the Fairfield Catering Group claims to have five locations, more than 500 employees, and annual revenue of nearly $ 20 million.

In New Milford, two eligible Subway franchisees collectively received over $ 168,000. A Danbury Haagen-Dazs received over $ 230,700.

When Attonito tried to apply for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, he said there was no more funds to donate. It was disheartening.

“With all this relief being distributed, it’s like why don’t we matter?” he said.

Attonito was unable to use any of the aid or grants, “nothing they gave away like candy.”

Moraima Gutierrez, deputy district director for economic development at SBA Connecticut, said she offers a variety of programs and resources for business owners, from seminars to mentors to personalized success plans.

“It’s not one size fits all, because every business is unique,” ​​she said of recent funding programs. “The goal has always been to help as many businesses as possible, because that’s the core of our mission. “

Later that night, Gutierrez was hosting a Spanish seminar for small business owners.

Recently, small businesses that did not have a disaster relief or exit strategy have been hit particularly hard because their low margins don’t have much room for error, Gutierrez explained.

“A lot of small businesses that had not set up any type of savings plan for their business, this obviously was very detrimental to them. “

While not sure exactly when other relief programs will begin, Gutierrez said small businesses should keep tabs on and get in touch with their team of eight at SBA Connecticut.

“If this isn’t the right program for you, that’s okay, there will be more programs to come. “

New businesses are coming to town

The pandemic hasn’t scared off new business owners.

In Connecticut, near 23,000 new companies were registered in 2020, with the highest figures in real estate, followed by retail.

At Brookfield, community development specialist Greg Dembowski said he has continued to see new businesses start up over the past 18 months. He has also seen several companies continue to succeed in stressful financial and labor markets.

“I was amazed at how resilient some businesses in the city have been,” he said, adding that not all had been so lucky, including the restaurant Panchos & Gringos and Cantina, which closed in 2020. “It was actually a pleasant surprise at how well I think Brookfield has done in the year and a half.

Pauline Assenza, professor of management at the Ancel School of Business at Western Connecticut State University, has noticed the same trend.

“There hasn’t been a rise but neither has there been a slowdown,” she said of the new startups.

Yet the impact is there. As of March 2020, the state was home to more than 8,000 restaurants that employed around 160,000 residents, according to the Connecticut Restaurant Relief Fund. After stopping, more than 600 restaurants have gone bankrupt.

“We continue to see closures every week,” the fund’s website says.

Dembowski has heard talks about carving out a portion of Brookfield’s $ 5.3 million US bailout fund to help small businesses.

Locally, the city came together last Christmas to help small businesses as well, raising around $ 2,000 to distribute to businesses that decorated their storefronts.

“It’s not a lot of money, but it shows how much Brookfield cared about helping our small businesses. “

To continue

Small businesses have long been the heart and soul of small Connecticut towns like Brookfield. They are owned and managed by neighbors, family members and friends. The closure of a restaurant or store has a ripple effect on the community, both economically and socially.

“So when we say we’re helping small businesses, we’re really helping ourselves,” Dembowski said.

Even through a summer kitchen fire and continued financial stress, Attonito refuses to give up.

“I think this place has so much potential,” he said. “I want to be where the teams come to celebrate. We want to be that favorite place for the community. I want the kids who come here now to bring their kids here to play mini-golf.

Last Saturday the restaurant was busy and Attonito took his 9-year-old son with him to work. While his son helped out with small tasks, Attonito said he hoped that in many years he would be able to take over the business on his own.

For now, he’s only focused on keeping his doors open.

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About Christopher Easley

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