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Billionaire Restaurateur Tilman Fertitta Didn’t Keep PPP Money Because He Was Afraid of Criticism

The Landry’s, Inc. owner also asked President Trump for more federal funds for large restaurant groups

President Trump Holds Roundtable Discussion With Restaurant Executives Photo by Doug Mills - Pool/Getty Images

On Monday, President Donald Trump hosted business owners across the restaurant industry for a roundtable discussion on how to help the industry make a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic, and Houston’s own Tilman Fertitta was in attendance.

The Landry’s magnate was joined by a slew of top-level restaurateurs and industry executives, including fellow Texan and Woodshed Smokehouse owner Tim Love. During the meeting, Fertitta explained why the Trump administration needs to infuse “larger private restaurateurs” with cash to stay afloat, along with spending a lot of time talking about basketball with Trump.

The key takeaway, though, is that even though his company was approved for a Payroll Protection Program loan through the Small Business Administration, Fertitta returned the funds because he didn’t want to face criticism for being “the billionaire that took the money from the little business.” “I wanted to put 40,000 people back to work on May 1, but couldn’t take the criticism,” Fertitta says of his decision to not take a PPP loan. “I took the money and sent it back and did not spend a dollar.”

In response, Trump ribbed Fertitta’s decision to send the PPP money back. “They found out that you’re very rich and they said ‘what the hell?,” Trump said of Fertitta’s critics.

It’s kind of surprising, because Fertitta hasn’t been afraid to court controversy ever, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning, his company was criticized for taking away paid time off for employees at the Post Oak Hotel in Houston, a decision that was eventually reversed. He later described furloughs as a “favor” to his 40,000 out-of-work employees.

Fertitta also bragged during the meeting about being the first in the restaurant industry to seek private investment on the leveraged finance market, referring to the $300 million loan (with a whopping 12 percent interest rate) that he took out to keep his businesses afloat during the shutdown. “I borrowed $300 million to add to liquidity, but it wasn’t enough to hire back all of my employees,” he says.

From there, the conversation turned to basketball, and Trump pointed out that Fertitta had two very top earners on the Houston Rockets — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — are making upwards of $40 million per year. As Fertitta noted, those two are being paid their salaries thanks to the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by their union. Perhaps it’s time for all of Fertitta’s employees to consider unionizing in order to get paid.

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