A distinct feature of Houston’s vibrant and diverse dining scene, West African restaurants across the city are struggling to access programs intended to help small business owners just like them.
The loss of revenue caused by state-mandated closures and social distancing measures has dramatically impacted these vital dining establishments, preventing their owners from maintaining normal operations and making key investments. Many of these restaurants are entitled to public aid through the CARES Act, specifically via loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which cover up to eight weeks of payroll costs and may also be used to pay interest on rents, mortgages, and utilities.
But if these restaurants don’t see a significant uptick in revenue soon, they may be forced to close their doors for good.
Navigating the racially biased world of lending
Nana Owusu, owner of Afrikiko Restaurant, says that while he applied for a Payroll Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration, he has yet to hear from any government agency about receiving the aid he needs to maintain business as usual. “The PPP, I applied for it, but I never hear nothing from them over two months ago, so I’m not counting on it,” Owusu told Eater.
Owusu explained that before the pandemic dampened his sales, he was planning to purchase new equipment to keep the restaurant running at a certain quality level, including a grill and new ice machine. “If I get [the PPP loan], I could use it to get some other equipment, but if it doesn’t come, I’m still going to maintain what I have,” he said.
At Komchop African Restaurant, CEO Kehinde “Kenny” Sule said that accessing capital as an African American is often difficult, and getting an approved loan through the Payroll Protection Program has not been an exception to that rule. “Often we apply for loans and we don’t get it, and that’s the truth,” Sule said. “I don’t think we’re treated the same way. I don’t know the reason why.” Sule added that since her restaurant pays its fair share of taxes, it should be equally entitled to a PPP loan to help Komchop pay its employees and keep its doors open.
“If others are entitled to it, we should be entitled to it too, because we have a restaurant, we run the restaurant, we pay our taxes,” Sule said. “The landlord still expects you to pay your rent, you still have to pay your bills. They’re not going to forgive you or tell you to pass for this month. Every bill is going to be still paid for.”
Sule’s concerns have been echoed by African and African-American restaurant owners across the country, and it’s not new to PPP. According to Mother Jones, a 2017 study found that loan approval rates for black business owners are 20% lower than they are for white-owned businesses. The report also noted that many black business owners are “so pessimistic about their chances of being approved for bank loans that they don’t even bother to apply.”
The federal government isn’t helping, either. In mid-May, a group of news organizations sued the Small Business Administration for more information on the businesses and individuals that have received Payroll Protection Program loans, including racial demographics.
What Houston stands to lose
Owusu explained that Houston’s West African restaurants are often disregarded because much of the city’s dining public at large views them as small and insignificant, even though West African restaurants are an essential part of the city’s multiracial culture. He thinks too many diners believe West African restaurants are subpar compared to flashier, hipper restaurants situated nearer to Houston’s urban core.
Even though small Houston West African restaurants are having trouble accessing newly available government loans, Houston billionaire Tillman Fertitta was able to access government assistance for his restaurant empire Landry’s — one of the largest restaurant corporations in the country. Since receiving approval for a PPP loan, Fertitta has since returned the money and acquired capital through private investments. Other large chains, including Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Shake Shack, also received (and returned) PPP loans.
“When they talk about mainstream restaurants, they talk about Landry’s and all those big-name restaurants because the owners are billionaires, so the owner always has his name out there,” Owusu said. “When you talk about major restaurants, nobody counts us because we are not vibrant, we are not big, we are not a restaurant to sit in midtown or whatever, so we are basically all excluded. So it’s going to be a big loss if most of the restaurants are closed down, which means they’re going to lose authentic food of African varieties.”
Regardless of the difficulties Houston’s West African restaurants are facing to get the help they need to stay open during the pandemic, Goodwin Akobundu, owner of Trinity African Bar & Grill, believes that West African restaurants are essential to maintaining African culture within the city of Houston.
“Without the restaurants, there won’t be homemade food anymore,” Akobundu said. “[For] the African community, if you don’t have the food of the restaurants, how will it survive? They’ll have to travel out of Houston to go look for African food.”