Restaurants get COVID relief grants


HOLMES JACOB OF Two Brothers Tavern on Main Street was happy to get the unexpected infusion of cash from Table 21.

MIDDLEBURY — Congregational Church of Middlebury pastor Andy Nagy-Benson knows what it’s like to lead a donation drive. Asking folks to give money, even for super-worthy causes, can be challenging — particularly during a pandemic.

But Pastor Andy recently got a chance to give away some money himself — through a new nonprofit cause called Table 21.

In all, 19 ailing restaurants and farms in the Middlebury area received grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. They’ll use those resources to eat into shortfalls they’ve experienced during COVID-19 restrictions that have hammered restaurants and farms for the past year.

Nagy-Benson said the 19 grants used up $280,000 of a $300,000 gift from an anonymous overseas donor, who asked that the resources be quickly funneled to food-related businesses in the Middlebury area that have “experienced negative impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” reads the application form.

The remaining $20,000 is being set aside for what Better Middlebury Partnership Executive Director Karen Duguay called “a promotion geared toward our downtown retail and restaurants, with incentives for shopping and dining (or take-out).” It’s a promotion that will include gift cards that downtown store keeps can dispense to shoppers for use at Middlebury restaurants. In the promotion, called “Receipts + Eats,” people who shop at local stores between March 15 and April 1 could win a Table 21 gift certificate worth $20 off your meal at participating local restaurants. Gift certificates must be used by the end of April.

More promotions may be in the works.

“As we work to put something together to help encourage shopping and dining, we’ll model it after promotions that we know have worked well in the past,” Duguay said. “This past year, we’ve done a gift card challenge, two Pig Out dining promotions and a gift bundle shopping promotion and collectively seen an investment of well over $100,000 into local businesses as a result.”

Nagy Benson and other members of the Table 21 board reviewed 31 applications for the grant money.

“Every applicant had real need,” Nagy-Benson said. “We weren’t able to help them all.

“This was not a popularity contest,” he stressed.

Some applications had to be excluded because they didn’t meet Table 21 grant criteria. For example, some of those who applied were retail stores (as opposed to restaurants), and some were outside the Middlebury area.

“It never feels great not to be able to help someone when it’s clear they need the help,” Nagy-Benson said.

Still, he’s pleased with the way the awards process unfolded.  All Table 21 board members carefully reviewed applications, then connected for a marathon session to pick recipients and grant amounts.

“There was no question the people receiving grants were very touched and obviously grateful for the outreach,” Nagy-Benson said.

This year’s Table 21 grant recipients include American Flatbread (Middlebury Hearth), The Arcadian, Bridport Creamery, Fire & Ice, Grapevine Grille, Haymaker Bun Company, Jessica’s Restaurant (Swift House Inn), Morgan’s Tavern (Middlebury Inn), New Leaf Organics, Noonie’s Deli, Otter Creek Bakery, Rosie’s, Royal Oak Coffee, Sabai Sabai, Singing Cedars Farmstead, Southwest Café (Marquis Theater), Stone Leaf Teahouse, Two Brothers, and the Waybury Inn.

Nagy-Benson and fellow Table 21 board member (and current Middlebury Selectman) Dan Brown hand-delivered the checks late last week.

“That was the best part,” Nagy-Benson said of the socially distanced, face-to-face exchanges.

“It’s a real gift to be able to be in a position to offer some assistance.”

HELP IS NEEDED

But he acknowledged the grant awards, in some cases, only scratch the surface of the financial need of many local eateries.

“The need is deep,” he stressed.

How deep? Brown crunched some numbers based on 15 of the restaurant applications.

The 15 restaurants reported a combined total of almost $15 million revenues in 2019. In 2020, their combined revenues had dropped to $7.6 million, according to Brown. That’s a 48.2% drop.

In December of 2019, those 15 restaurants employed a combined 330 people, according to Brown. That workforce has now shrunk to 154, he said.

“So there are 175 people who live in and around Middlebury who no longer have jobs in the restaurant business,” he said.

Brown is the former co-owner of the Swift House Inn and Jessica’s Restaurant. Less than a year ago, he was among those searching for grants and loans to keep the inn and restaurant open amid the pandemic. So he knows what these businesses are going through and is gratified to have been a small part of the economic recovery process.

“This was really, really fun,” he said. “To have the opportunity — having been on one end of this — to be on the other side and give out these grants, was great.”

While there’s no guarantee of another generous gift to replenish Table 21, the organization will remain in existence and focus on new revenue streams to continue the COVID-relief grants.

Future rounds are likely to include retail stores, organizers said.

“This started with a big splash from overseas, but there are people in this community and beyond who love this place and want the people running businesses to succeed,” Nagy-Benson said. “Table 21 is still deeply committed to raising funds.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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