As We Barrel Toward Colder Months, a Lifeline Appears for Philly Restaurants

A new grant program by DoorDash and the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association will help Philly restaurants winterize their outdoor dining spaces.

A new grant program by DoorDash and the PRLA will help Philly restaurants winterize their outdoor dining spaces | Flickr

There was a moment last week that felt so hopeful, it didn’t feel real. We’re not used to good news coming out of the restaurant industry these days. And in Philly — where the PPP loans helped only nominally compared to other big cities, where COVID-19 cases started spiking right after indoor dining went in effect — restaurant owners and workers would be fools to feign optimism.

“Last week, chefs and restaurateurs cheered the passage in the House of Representatives of the HEROES Act, a $2.2 trillion coronavirus Hail Mary that reinstates a weekly $600 unemployment supplement that lapsed at the end of July, and also includes a $120 billion grant program earmarked for restaurant recovery,” wrote the New Yorker’s food correspondent, Helen Rosner, in a piece about the “uncertain promises” of indoor dining. “But the bill, spearheaded by Democrats, is unlikely to make any headway in the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Trump abruptly announced, on Tuesday, that he would be suspending any further negotiation of COVID-19 relief until after Election Day.” 

So owners, now, are forced back to the drawing board. They’re left to strategize their own survival without anyone’s help except for their diners, whose fickle tastes and uncertain ethics make for a shaky customer base, and a local government that can only do so much. Many restaurants have only made it this far without closing because the city gave them permission to take over its streets (and maybe more significantly, its parking spaces) to open mini versions of their dining rooms outdoors, where it’s been deemed a smaller health risk for workers and guests. Outdoor dining — in some cases, more so than takeout and delivery —  is what’s kept so many of our independent operators in business. Sooner than we think, outdoor dining won’t be an option. 

The longer we can prolong outdoor dining in Philly, the more cushion we can build for winter’s inevitable doldrums. But warm coats can only get diners through so many months before the cold becomes unbearable. Before they give up on dining out altogether. Heat lamps are the last weapon left in the restaurant arsenal. 

Yesterday, the restaurant delivery company DoorDash announced that they, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association, have instituted a “new grant program to help Philadelphia restaurants prepare for colder weather and continue to serve customers throughout the winter. The grants in Philadelphia are part of a $2 million effort in select cities across the country to help restaurants safely continue providing service as the weather gets cold.” In Philly, restaurants (with three or fewer locations operating currently, with 50 employees, and $3 million or less in annual revenue) will be able to apply for grants that come out of a $300,000 pot at $5,000 a piece.

This program isn’t the first of its kind. The city of D.C. — specifically its Office of Nightlife & Culture (why doesn’t Philly have one of those?) — invested $4 million into its restaurant industry with a “Streatery Winter Ready Grant Program” that gives out restaurant winterization grants at $6,000 a piece. Of course, there have been rumblings online of owners dealing with the uptick in demand for heat lamps (now, one of this year’s hottest commodities), but the PRLA’s Ben Fileccia tells me in a text message, “I haven’t heard of anyone actually having trouble. Only stories, anecdotally. We have companies emailing daily saying they have them.”

Applications for the grant will be available on Friday, October 16th on the Hello Alice website. Recipients will be notified by December 31st — a date that, for many owners, is both too far away and just around the corner.