I grew up in the restaurant business: My family launched their first restaurant, Nino's, in the heart of midtown Manhattan in the early 1980s, and the summers I spent in their restaurants, as well as the after-school lunches I cooked with my grandma, molded my love for food. My parents often worked late, so I spent a lot of time with my Nonna — and every day she would teach me a different recipe. Sometimes we would cook a light frittata; others she would teach me how to make cavatelli. To this day, I can still remember the feel of her wooden pasta board.
As I got older, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the business side of the restaurant, so I enrolled in St John's University and pursued a degree in hospitality. My older brother, Franco — who was already running that first midtown restaurant — decided to enroll in the French Culinary Institute. And though my brother and I eventually took over my parents' first restaurant and renamed it Nino's 46, we always wanted an opportunity to open our own, back in Queens, where we grew up.
We finally did so in January 2019, launching Nino's AQ, a contemporary Italian restaurant in Astoria — the Queens neighborhood where we grew up.
Operating a restaurant in New York City had become a difficult juggling act over the last few years, though, even before the pandemic. Restaurants' profits have been squeezed from every side — from high rents to rising food and liquor costs to taxes — and the margins have evaporated faster than the water in my pasta cooker. Many restaurants were already losing money, breaking even or keeping less than 10 percent a year in profits.
People in my neighborhood often express how shocked they are to see a local restaurant go out of business, and they always say the same thing: "That place was always packed!" Unfortunately, being "packed" with patrons doesn't always mean being profitable.
But even with all the challenges that come with operating a restaurant in New York City, never in a million years would I have envisioned what would happen if I tried to do so in something like our current situation.
Nino's 46 is completely shuttered, bringing our sales down 100 percent in that location. In Astoria, we've kept Nino's AQ afloat — barely — by introducing Nino's AQ Italian Market, which gives customers access to my house-made pastas, cheeses, sauces, etc. at affordable prices. But even with being able switch to an "Italian-deli" style business, our sales are down 75 percent. That means my brother and I are trying to hold onto two restaurants — with all the built-in costs of both — and keep our own families afloat on only 12.5 percent of the sales (not profits) we used to have.
We are, of course, not alone in our predicament; governors around the country issued stay-at-home orders shuttering eat-in restaurants, and most have yet to reopen for anything beyond takeout and delivery. The restaurant industry, though, had been projected to do nearly $1 trillion in sales this year, which would have supported more than 15.6 million employees and billions of dollars in taxes to the federal, state and local governments.
We all knew that the federal government needed to step in if the restaurant industry — and, specifically, restaurants like mine — were to survive this global pandemic. And it did eventually respond to the pleas from our industry and other small businesses in the form of Payment Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration.
The PPP program was said to be designed to help small businesses by allowing us to take out loans that would be forgiven if we kept paying our employees or rehired anyone we let go. Since the loan was designed to get small-business employees back to work, the majority of the loan has to be used to cover payroll for eight weeks after the loan is issued, but businesses can use about a quarter of the funds for other expenses.
We decided to apply for a PPP loan as soon as it became available the first week in April — not realizing what a nightmare the process would be. We were advised that we had to use the institution with which we already banked, but it was fruitless. I must have filled out the forms on my bank's website over 250 times, but it crashed on every attempt. After all of my attempts, the website finally shut down completely and wouldn't even let me log in to try. I called everyone I knew in the industry and found out that other people were submitting their applications manually. I called my bank and was then told that it wasn't accepting applications through the manual process at the moment. Last Thursday, we found out that the PPP fund for the loans was completely tapped out.
Watching the news this week, I began seeing how many big, publicly traded companies got approved for massive PPP loans when I couldn't even get an application through. Companies like Ruth's Chris, J. Alexander's and Potbelly, which have thousands of employees, received loans of $20 million, $15 million and $10 million, respectively. Overall, nearly 45 percent of the money in the program went to loans for over $1 million — or, by the terms of the program, to people whose payrolls for just eight weeks would have to have been $750,000 or much, much more.
I was shocked and angry: The PPP would have allowed me to get my small crew back to work and help with some of the rent bills for my small business, yet it was being used by big corporations that already had millions of dollars. I understand that during this crisis everyone needs help, but if the government is going to call something a "small-business loan," then it needs to make sure it actually goes to small businesses.
I'm hopeful, now that the Senate has passed $320 billion in new funding for the program, that I'll be able to completely my application for both locations — and that, this time, the businesses for which this money was intended will actually be able to access it.
Meanwhile, even with all negative news, we are still trying to find positive ways to serve our community — after all, we grew up here. We started "pasta drops" to give away our fresh pasta to local senior citizens who can't always get to the store or access ingredients to make their own, and we teamed up with a local blog, Give Me Astoria, to send our pizza to local hospitals to honor the workers trying to save lives in them. We are trying to do our part to help the community and hope that, once we are fully open, we can continue programs like these. We just need a little help, like everyone else, surviving until then.