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Congress can still do more to help struggling bars and restaurants

Many owners need assistance building up supplies lost during pandemic

As bars and restaurants across the country reopen, the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act would help many of their owners build up the inventory they lost during the pandemic, Hilton writes.
As bars and restaurants across the country reopen, the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act would help many of their owners build up the inventory they lost during the pandemic, Hilton writes. (Courtesy Mykl Wu)

Our nation’s capital is emerging from a long winter. Thankfully, more and more Washingtonians are receiving their COVID-19 vaccines, and I am thrilled we can now open up our neighborhood bars and restaurants fully without capacity limitations.

The last decade has seen a renaissance in our city’s nightlife. Our bars and restaurants, including American Ice Company, El Rey, The Gibson, The Brixton, Echo Park, Marvin and Players Club, offered places to unwind with co-workers after work, celebrate special occasions with friends, or introduce out-of-town guests to a bit of authentic Washington, D.C., that they would not find in a travel guide.

Having to close down last year at the onset of the pandemic was incredibly painful. For us, the springtime is when we begin to build up our inventory of food and beer to get ready for the beginning of nice weather, meaning more crowds at our bars.

Spring is when we celebrate March Madness, the start of the NHL playoffs and St. Patrick’s Day, and get ready for the influx of tourists to the city for cherry blossoms. To prepare, we purchase food, beverages and beer in advance so that we’re ready when our customers want to relax a bit from their work and have some fun.

Having to shut down these bars in March left us with a massive inventory but no customers. We did the best we could to make sure this food and beverage did not go to waste. We donated as much food as we could. We understood that our employees were suddenly facing a tremendous amount of uncertainty, so we also used our food inventory to cook for them. As opposed to wine or liquor, beer has an expiration date, and I want to thank Capital Eagle Distributors for working with us to return and reposition much of the beer we had on hand. 

However, even with the food donation and employee meals, we still had expired food and beverages. Our insurance did not cover this loss, meaning that we had to cover this unmerchantable inventory in addition to other costs during the pandemic.

I want to thank members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who came together to provide critical relief to bars and restaurants. Many bars, restaurants and tap rooms have used the Paycheck Protection Program and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund to continue to pay their employees, and Congress should continue to fund them. Across the country, bars and restaurants like ours have been devastated by the closures because of the pandemic. These restaurants and bars represent the life savings of their owners, good-paying jobs for their employees and core gathering places in Main Streets and (and some U Streets) across the country.

Although many other businesses also had to shut down during the pandemic, bars are restaurants were unique in that we had to provide for our employees while having to deal with spoiling food and beverages. Many Washingtonians of late have been looking for places to get together with friends, toast their vaccines and avoid cicadas. However, behind the scenes, bars and restaurants are extending credit and looking for capital to restock their shelves, refill kegs and pack in their refrigerators after suffering through a year with minimal revenue.

The good news is both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working together to assist bars and restaurants like ours that lost food and beverages last year. The Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act of 2021, introduced in both the House and the Senate, would provide a temporary credit to businesses like ours for unmerchantable inventory lost due to necessary precautions to halt public gatherings and safeguard our employees and customers during the pandemic.

We were able to shut down our businesses reasonably quickly at the beginning of the pandemic. However, as bars and restaurants across the country reopen, many of their owners will need time and assistance to build up the supplies they need.

This tax credit would be another hand-up from the federal government to help businesses like ours. We hope to return to a city with a vibrant nightlife, where our employees and customers can again gather safely to celebrate important life events or just grab a drink after a long day.

Congress has indeed done a lot, but some additional support will help us return — hopefully, stronger and wiser than before.

Ian Hilton is a Washington-born hospitality entrepreneur. He and his brother Eric own more than a dozen restaurants, bars and lounges through the Washington, D.C., metro area. This op-ed was written in conjunction with the Beer Institute, a national trade association for the American brewing industry.

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