Relief for Restaurants: What’s being done to keep our food scene alive

MADISON, Wis. — Dane County’s restaurants are preparing to increase capacity limits to 50 percent this week, per new public health rules – but the local spots we talked to say much more is needed to ensure they can survive past the pandemic.

Evan Dannells is the chef and owner at Cadre Restaurant on University Avenue. His dine-in seating has been closed to customers since the pandemic started, because he says 25 percent capacity is simply not possible for him. He’s making plans to reopen soon this spring, but for now, the seats sit empty.

“There’s [normally] a vibrancy in restaurants that becomes a part of your life, a certain buzz,” he said. “It’s a little soul crushing,”

The kitchen still hums, though. Dannells offers take-out and has also recently started selling his food wholesale to places like Vitruvian Farms.

“There is literally no way anyone can be profiting or prospering during this,” he told us.

We wanted to know how to help restaurants prosper again. When we asked more than two dozen local spots last December if they were concerned for closing down, every single owner raised their hands. Two months later, Dannells says many of them feel the same.

“The amount of closings you’ve seen to date is not even close to what we’re going to see over this next year,” he said.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi agrees.

“People’s lives are at stake, people’s careers are at stake, their businesses,” he said. “So it’s certainly not easy.”

Parisi walked us through some of the local initiatives that have helped restaurants stay open.

  1. Small business funding. Parisi says Dane was the first county in the country to create a small business grant with its own money – $800,000 in partnership with Dane Buy Local. Factor in some federal help – $10 million from the CARES Act – and it made a dent for more than 2,600 businesses, each receiving about $4,000. Roughly 300 of those were restaurants.
  2. A second round of grants. Checks are on the way this week to small businesses, about $4 million split between 400 businesses – leaving each business with $10,000. Roughly 500 restaurants alone applied.
  3. Non-monetary programming – initiatives like Soups On and the Streatery have offered tools to restaurants to make their own income. Another partnership with Dane Buy Local helped 26 restaurants sell soup out of a local kitchen, resulting in $80,000 that went directly back into their pockets. Additionally, the city of Madison recently announced it would extend its streatery program to April of 2022, so spots can expand their outdoor seating capacity into sidewalks and streets.

“None of these things are going to solve the problem,” Colin Murry of Dane Buy Local told us. “But a little bit here, a little bit there, it all adds up.”

Those are the sort of tools of which Dannells wants more. While he continues to sell wholesale out of his kitchen, licensing restrictions only him to make 25 percent of his revenue in that manner. Similarly, he eyes his fully stocked bar with dreams of selling cocktails to go – he tells us he has $15,000 in bottles alone – but a bill to allow just that is stuck at the state capitol.

“I’m not in a position to pooh-pooh help that has been given,” he said. “I just want to see more.”