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Andrew Zimmern: The government's restaurant relief fund 'is just a start'

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Celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the restaurant and food industry's battle to stay in business through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Video Transcript

MELODY HAHM: Welcome back to Yahoo Finance's Special "All Markets Summit-- Small Business Recovery." America's restaurant industry was among the hardest hit as businesses were forced to shut down during the pandemic. Here to talk more about this and much more is Emmy and James Beard award-winning TV personality, chef, author, and social activist, Andrew Zimmern.

So, Andrew, you know, I want to get some fresh thoughts, right? As we see the country reopening, we see vaccinations sort of in mass distribution right now, how are you feeling, having been in this industry for so long after sort of reacting to this unprecedented year?

ANDREW ZIMMERN: I feel like Charles Dickens. I remember the "Tale of Two Cities," the opening line-- it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Our industry has been hardest hit of any. We have had to be most resilient. We've been forced to pivot, re-pivot, zig, and zag like any other industry.

And yet, at the same time, having just visited Atlanta a few weeks ago to see a food hall opening where 18 entrepreneurs all held on to their dream for two years and made it through to see their small business take flight, my heart is warmed. And today at noon, the application process begins at the SBA for the Restaurant Relief Fund.

The portal has been open for three days. I believe we've seen record numbers. I believe one in five restaurants in America have already signed up, which you can do on the portal now ahead of the actual site opening where the applications will be triaged, focusing-- and I think very rightfully so-- on restaurants that make less than $500,000 a year, that are owned by women, that are owned by people of color, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera to let groups that have been traditionally disenfranchised have first bite at the financial apple.

So on one hand, I'm feeling very positive. On the other hand, I'm mourning the loss of a substantial piece of our industry over the last 15 months.

MELODY HAHM: You know, when you think about that grieving process, I know one of the action items you were able to participate in is cofounding the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Tell me more about the work that you've been able to do and how much work is ahead.

ANDREW ZIMMERN: Well, thank you very much. The founding of the IRC was something that happened very spontaneously over the course of a week-- 20, 30 of us getting on a phone and Zoom calls and saying, yes, we're going to do this thing. And the best thing that we ever did was maintain our singleness of purpose. We decided that we were going to focus on legislative challenges on Capitol Hill and get laws to help provide grants of different types to help sustain our industry.

Focusing on real time laws that could positively affect our industry, and then seeing that happen today with the SBA portal being opened providing $25-plus billion to the restaurant industry is fantastic. But it's just a start. When demand is so high-- when you say a fifth-- a fifth of our industry has applied for grants already and the portal's not even open, we know that we need more money. We were originally asking for $120 billion in grant relief-- a drop in the bucket considering that in the fourth quarter of last year alone, we lost that much money in GDP from restaurants.

You have to remember, it's the supply chain going in-- 93% of the money made in restaurants goes out the back door into neighborhoods and communities. We represent 5% of GDP in this country, well over $1 trillion. And we represent-- you know, we're the largest employer of single moms, returning citizens, second-largest employer of immigrants-- first, depending on whose data you look at.

Sadly, the economic hit lags behind. I think there are a lot of restaurants that are going to close in the next month because they just can't qualify for money and they've taken on so much debt. That's really been the sorrowful story of the last 13 months. In the pivoting, and re-pivoting, and repositioning of their businesses, restaurants have taken on debt and/or spent every last dime they have. And so they can't continue any longer unless they get this relief. That $25 billion is going to get eaten up by 5 o'clock [INAUDIBLE] noon, and we need further grant relief from the US government.

MELODY HAHM: Yeah, when you think about the future or promise of future stimulus, have you been in talks with some of those lawmakers you just mentioned? What have been the dialogues looking like? As you point out, that $28 billion plus, I think, some several thousand to working families with children-- that can't nearly be enough for what we have to recoup.

ANDREW ZIMMERN: It can't. And the challenge, of course, is getting in line. Now, we have the ears of Senate Majority Leader, of House Majority Leader Pelosi. So we have the right people committed to helping restaurants. We just know that it takes a lot more than that commitment.

You have to be there in the room when that pen hits the paper. And that's our challenge. And we're going to be focusing in the coming months on making sure-- and we're in talks with the Biden administration. We know the right government agencies, we've been in concert working with the SBA to make sure that this Restaurant Relief Fund gets doled out-- and quickly, so that we can move on to getting more funds. So we're positioned well, we just have a lot of work ahead of us.

MELODY HAHM: Some really fascinating insights there and perspective-- thank you so much to Andrew Zimmern, loved speaking with you today.

ANDREW ZIMMERN: Take care, thank you.

MELODY HAHM: More of Yahoo Finance's "All Markets Summit-- Small Business Recovery" right after this quick break. Stick around.