Thanks to President Biden and the Democrats, and no thanks to a single Republican, restaurants in NEPA are able to keep their doors open and their staffs paid with the Restaurant Revitalization Fund

PENNSYLVANIA — Over the weekend, the Times-Tribune highlighted local restaurants who say that the Restaurant Revitalization Fund within President Biden’s American Rescue Plan has provided them with a much needed lifeline to stay afloat. Larry Nicolais, owner of Constantino’s Catering and Events, said the grant has been a difference-maker in a very difficult environment for his business. Constantino’s is among 498 businesses in Northeast Pennsylvania that shared almost $83 million in federal RRF grants to help keep their doors open and their staff paid during the pandemic.

The Times Tribune: Federal grants provide lifeline for Lackawanna County restaurants struggling amid pandemic 

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Constantino’s Catering and Events owner Larry Nicolais can think a little less about dollars and cents and a little more about other things that matter.

Like his customers and his employees.

The more than $1.5 million received by the Clarks Summit catering and events business was tops among the $28.1 million in grants awarded to 209 restaurants in the 8th District, which encompasses all of Lackawanna, Wayne and Pike counties, along with parts of Luzerne and Monroe.

“We’re playing catch-up here,” he said. “It’s just been a roller coaster of an experience.”

Constantino’s used part of its grant funding to make improvements to its venue at 1385 Lackawanna Trail to provide for more outdoor seating and better air filtration, allowing for a safer dining experience.

But the first thing he did with the money, Nicolais said, was to give raises to the employees who struggled along with business as the pandemic unfolded.

The funding also allowed Constantino’s to hire new employees at higher wages and to honor contracts with its customers that, because of cancellations and postponements, were still priced at pre-pandemic margins.

“It allowed me to operate my business in a way that I didn’t have to be so concerned about the bottom line,” Nicolais said. “I have been able to be more concerned about customers and my staff and make sure they are taken care of.”

Part of the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress last spring, the Restaurant Revitalization Fund provided restaurants and other eligible businesses with funding equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss up to $10 million per business.

In 8th District, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright of Moosic, the grants averaged $134,560.

Across all three area congressional districts, including the 9th and the 12th, the average was $166,511. The 9th District is represented by Rep. Dan Meuser of Dallas and the 12th by Rep. Fred Keller of Snyder County, both Republicans.

Peculiar Kitchen co-owner Miranda Philbin said the $201,848 grant awarded to the Scranton restaurant has been a “great cushion” as it rebounds from the pandemic. Because of staffing difficulties, hours at the restaurant at 307 Penn Ave. are still limited.

Peculiar Kitchen has used the grant money for everything from paying for supplies to supplementing payroll to improving its outdoor seating.

“The Restaurant Revitalization Fund was definitely a godsend,” Philbin said. “By the time that came around, the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money was pretty much gone, so it is helping us stay afloat, especially when sales are still much lower than they were in the past.

“We’re working hard to get back to that point, but things are just so different now.”

At Mendicino’s Pizza and Family Restaurant in the Shop Rite plaza in Covington Twp., owner Lynn Mendicino said the $320,407 grant the business received through the program has helped with expenses across the board — payroll, rent, utilities.

“I don’t know if we would have survived without it … because we were able to pay all of our bills and keep up with things,” Mendicino said. “It was a life-saver, and we have used it wisely.”

Nicolais, who considers Constantino’s one of the lucky ones, said Congress should refund the program to help all the food service businesses that were deeply affected and continue to be hampered by COVID-19.

“If it wasn’t for this additional lifeline of money that came in, it would be very difficult for us to operate in this current situation,” he said.