Meet The Owner Who Got The Smallest Federal Restaurant Grant in New York City

This summer, thousands of New York City restaurants received funds from the federal government to help them recover some of the losses they suffered in the pandemic. The biggest grants were worth $10 million. But the Brooklyn bar Bierwax didn’t even get enough money to pay a week’s worth of wages to its seven staffers.

Gothamist/WNYC analyzed federal data for approximately 5,400 Restaurant Revitalization Fund recipients in New York City. The $28.6 billion fund was part of this year’s stimulus package. A few well-known restaurants including Sparks, River Cafe, Sarabeth’s and Peter Luger each got millions of dollars.

Bierwax received just $1,435.

“It feels serendipitous in a way ‘cause we got something,” said Chris Maestro, one of the bar’s owners. But he said it doesn’t feel fair. He noted that more profitable companies “that are really well established, that have multiple locations, that are chains, received millions of dollars.”

Maestro opened Bierwax in late 2017. The 45-year-old former city public school teacher said he wanted to combine two of his passions: craft beer and vinyl records.

There are 4,000 records stacked in shelves behind the bar and all music is played on a turntable, with the exception of some CDs. Portraits of members of the Wu-Tang Clan are hung near the door. Maestro said the business was turning a profit right before the pandemic, making about half a million dollars a year. That paid all his bills, rent and salaries, he said, and left a little bit of extra money for the investors.

Then came the shutdown in March, 2020. After that, he said, “We were losing about $20,000 a month.”

Maestro laid off almost all his staff members and limped along selling beer to-go. Eventually, he got paycheck protection aid from the government, in two different rounds which he said totalled almost $50,000.

That money, plus a change in fortune, explains why he got so little from the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Last summer, the city added Vanderbilt Avenue outside Bierwax to its Open Streets program. Maestro said that brought so many visitors on weekends that it saved his business.

As things picked up in late 2020, Maestro said the bar didn’t lose nearly as much money as he expected. Eligibility for the Revitalization Fund was determined by the difference in sales between 2019 and 2020. Once he subtracted the PPP aid, he said could only apply for $1,435. Why did he even bother?

“I was taught to pick up pennies if I see a penny,” he said, adding he wasn’t about to turn down free money. The smallest grant paid by the fund was worth $1000, to a business in Moline, Illinois.

Maestro said the money doesn’t make him whole. He took out a loan during the pandemic and worries about how he’ll do this year, as the pandemic wears on and rules keep changing with the rise of the delta variant.

“To have had a bit of a safety net would have been really important for us,” he said, adding that he still had to borrow money. He’s also worried about the persistence of COVID.

But he knows Bierwax is lucky to have received any money. The federal restaurant program was worth $28.6 billion but it received more than 370,000 applications worth more than $75 billion. The government gave priority to applications from businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans. Bierwax met that criteria, because Maestro is African-American and his co-owners are women. But many priority applicants were shut out after a lawsuit.

Maestro’s customers are glad Bierwax is still in business. “What makes this place unique is it’s always really inviting and there’s calm, relaxing music,” said Brad Weeks, 26, who sat at the bar on a weeknight enjoying jazz by the sax player Cannonball Adderley. He said the government should re-evaluate the metrics it used for the restaurant fund.

“I think it’s so important for us to continue to make sure that these businesses have all the resources,” he said. “They need to come back as strong as ever.”

Sarah Mahikian, 37, who lives in Park Slope, also questioned the formula knowing how many businesses were forced to close and even those that survived are still hurting. “Like you have to be close to drowning before you get a life raft,” she said.

Still, bartender Jessie Wang, 25, said she’s feeling a lot more secure now that people are stopping by after work and the place is busy again on weekends.

“I mean, there were days where I really didn’t even know if I was going to have my apartment, if I was able to pay rent,” she said. “I think we’re definitely seeing the light.”

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering the city’s recovery efforts at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.

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