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Business grants, relaxed liquor regulations could keep some Iowa restaurants and bars afloat

Iowa Restaurant Association President Jessica Dunker explains what selling alcohol to-go, as well as grant availability, could do for restaurants and bars.

More than 1,000 local restaurants and bars won't come back because of coronavirus closures. 

That's the outlook from Iowa Restaurant Association President Jessica Dunker. 

Dunker sat down for an interview with Local 5 to discuss the latest on restaurants and bars in the state.

Local 5 News: Last week Gov. Kim Reynolds relaxed the alcohol sales rules for certain liquor license holders. This was viewed as a great thing for them, but how is it actually impacted bars and restaurants from what you've seen?

Jessica Dunker: Well, it certainly was a great thing and I really have to give kudos to the State of Iowa for trying everything possible to try to open up streams of revenue for restaurants and bars. It has been a little more difficult than people outside the business expected, outside the restaurant and bar business expected for us to be able to deliver on this. 

There are a lot of questions about how one ... responsibly provides mixed drinks to-go. But certainly we're seeing some creative things happening. And there are definitely places that are taking advantage of these new, relaxed roles for a limited time.

Local 5: Sometimes liquor sales can be, you know, more profitable than food. At least that's what we we hear a lot for those of us who are outside the business and we hear that. So is maybe the addition of the liquor sales force for some maybe certain businesses going to be a good thing? 

Dunker: It absolutely is. And actually, the relaxed rules came in two parts. 

So very early on in the process after our on-premise closures suspensions happened, we were allowed to sell closed alcohol to-go in any size or format. So people can sell, say a mixed drink kit or a bottle of wine to-go with a meal. And so, essentially, they were able to act very much like a retailer or a liquor store. 

A second proclamation actually expanded those relaxed rules and allow restaurants and bars now to actually mix drinks and sell cocktails that are mixed and ready to go as long as they are in a closed container. Like I said, we're seeing some really creative things happening out in the industry, but it's something that you have to be thoughtful about and take some investment in the products you need to be able to offer mixed drinks to go in a closed container. But we are seeing it happen.

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Local 5: Overall, I think the Iowans understand how hard restaurants and bars have been hit because they see the great majority of them completely not operating at all. We know almost all of the revenue has been lost. 

What about the Congress' talking about 250 billion dollars available in small business loans and I believe the Senate is supposed to vote on that [Thursday].

Is something like that going to be able to help small restaurants and bars, any restaurants in bars in Iowa when that money becomes available?

Dunker: Well, absolutely. Anything that opens up either grants or loans that can support businesses will help a portion of Iowa's restaurants and bars. And just today as part of the governor's press conference the Iowa Economic Development Authority shared that they had given 503 Small Business grants, and I believe 500 of those went to restaurants and bars. 

So certainly the state has stepped up in the best way that they possibly can to give us some short term assistance from the standpoint of what the SBA is offering It has been a little bit difficult to-date for restaurants and bars to take advantage of some of these SBA programs like the paycheck Protection Program, the PPP that people have been hearing a lot about. And part of the reason for that is that that is based on the premise that you have people employed at this time. And you can borrow up to two-and-a-half months of payroll and then have that forgiven at the end of these time periods. 

The problem is, is when you've been mandated to not be operating, it's pretty hard to justify paying and employees and so healthy businesses that have people working are able to get those loans and get them forgiven. But for restaurants and bars, it's just a way that they're going to take on some debt.

But for some it's a gamble we're taking and we're certainly seeing certain establishments take advantage of those SBA programs.

To donate to the Iowa Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, click here.

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