Before Taqueria Las Gemelas was approved for coronavirus relief aid on Wednesday, the Mexican eatery, like countless other businesses across the country, was struggling to stay afloat.
"We've been in a tenuous position at best for the past two months we've been open," said Joshua Phillips, co-owner of Las Gemelas with partners Yesenia Neri Díaz and Rogelio Martinez, who are Mexican immigrants. "There's definitely a lot of corners cut. There's definitely some wages we were looking to increase within our team ... some debt we need to pay off."
Phillips and his team opened the trendy taqueria in Washington, D.C.'s Union Market in March — more than a year into the pandemic that had already forced a months-long delay in the restaurant's launch.
"We kind of lost all of our funding immediately when the country shut down," he said to NPR in an interview. "Essentially every week we have just enough cash for payroll."
According to the White House, Las Gemelas went from 55 employees down to 7.
But on Wednesday, while bracing themselves for a busy Cinco De Mayo holiday, Phillips and his staff got some sorely needed good news: The restaurant's application for a grant from the federal government's newly opened Restaurant Revitalization Fund had been approved — a message delivered by the president himself during a midday stop.
"It was a wonderful morning. I can't think of a better possible way to be accepted into the funds," Phillips said. "[President Biden] asked us what the money meant to us, and I honestly broke down in tears a little bit ... I'm sniffling up a little thinking about it."
The fund, which opened to applicants on Monday, is part of Biden's historic $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that he signed into law in March. The $28.6 billion restaurant relief fund grants food businesses funding "equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss" up to $10 million.
Recipients are not required to repay the funding as long as the money is spent on eligible uses no later than March 11, 2023.
After grabbing a to-go order at Las Gemelas — four tacos and two quesadillas — Biden took questions from reporters, describing restaurant workers as having been "resilient, creative and generous" throughout the pandemic.
"Restaurants are more than a major driver in our economy; they're woven in the fabric of our communities," he said, calling the industry "a key part of the American story."
Small restaurants and their employees were among the hardest hit by the pandemic that is now stretching into its second year. The National Restaurant Association estimates that 110,000 restaurants "closed permanently or for the long-term," compared to pre-pandemic levels. Those establishments that have survived still face difficulties in resuming normal operations and wooing back Americans who have lost their appetite for eating out during the pandemic. Even for restaurants where diners have returned, a national worker shortage has threatened operations and profitability.
"Some of the parts of our economy need special help. At the top of that list is our nation's restaurants," Biden said. "Whether it's our economy or our sense of community, we're relying on restaurants to play a big role in our recovery."
Small Business Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman said in a statement this week that the effort is "prioritizing funding to the hardest-hit small businesses – irreplaceable gathering places in our neighborhoods and communities that need a lifeline now to get back on their feet." The White House says the fund prioritizes restaurants that are owned by women, veterans and other "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals."
In the first two days of the fund, Biden said Wednesday that the program had already received 186,000 applications.
Industry leaders, including National Restaurant Association CEO Tom Bené, warn that the funds could go quickly.
"The question on the minds of many is what happens when applications outpace the available funds," he said in a statement on Monday, pledging that his group would continue to push for "a comprehensive set of solutions [to the industry's challenges], including additional funding for the RRF."
While the fund has been popular among Democratic lawmakers, every Republican in the House of Representatives voted against the stimulus package it was a part of.
But in recent days, some have shifted their public stance on the spending by encouraging their supporters to sign up for aid under the bill.
Among the most prominent examples is House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who had previously likened the coronavirus relief bill to "socialism." On a recent Facebook post, the California Republican encouraged his constituents to sign up for grants under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
"Applications for the [Small Business Administration's] Restaurant Revitalization Fund open this Monday, May 3rd," McCarthy wrote — including a link to sign up for the grant — according to a screenshot of the post.
McCarthy led the unsuccessful Republican House effort to squash the American Rescue Plan, under which the restaurant funds are disbursed.
Republican Reps. Don Bacon, Andrew Garbarino and Elise Stefanik have also encouraged their supporters via social media to take advantage of the program's funds despite voting against the bill.
Zeroing in on the contradiction, Democrats accused the party of being hypocritical.
"House Republicans will vote no and take the dough," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wrote in an email.