[caption id="attachment_226915" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Caption: Tomeka Crawford has worked in the restaurant industry for most of her life, including selling out dishes at the Capital City Farmers Market. With a county grant, she was able to open her restaurant earlier this year. | PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING[/caption]
DOVER — Tomeka Crawford has walked a long road to opening her restaurant, starting with selling her homestyle cooking to crowds at the local farmer’s market. With the help of a Kent County Small Business and Hospitality Grant, however, she was able to realize a childhood dream: opening her own restaurant.“I can say I have been in the valley, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it through. But I’m standing in my restaurant today,” Crawford told the Delaware Business Times. “When you have a dream and believe in it, you keep fighting for it.”Crawford was one of 171 business owners in Kent County to receive a combined $3.4 million in Kent County Small Business and Hospitality Grants, a program created by county officials to aid small businesses as the country started to recover from the worst of an economic shutdown.The Kent County Levy Court voted to establish the grant with $5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. Businesses must have 100 employees or less to qualify, and the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce (CDCC) and Kent County Tourism reviewed qualified applications.CDCC officials said 148 businesses received $2.4 million, while Kent County Tourism said 23 hotels received $995,858 in all. There were 451 small businesses that applied for the small business program, meaning 37% of businesses who applied received a grant.‘Keep me going’Eligible businesses had to have fewer than 100 employees and demonstrate a financial loss. CDCC consultant Judy Diogo said that many did not record a financial loss to qualify, while others may have been missing information or may not have been doing business in Kent County. Missing information was the biggest challengeThe application deadline was March 21, but going through the sheer number of applications did slow the roll out, as well as filing documentation with the Kent County officials and following federal guidance for the ARPA funds. The final grants were issued in June.“It was almost as if someone handed us a big pile of money, and we had to figure out how to do this, and then someone came back and gave us some rules,” CDCC President Dina Vendetti said. “But the best part of this process is hearing from the business owners. People told us we helped save their business. It was really amazing to know we were able to make such an impact.”For many business owners interviewed by DBT, the program served as a lifeline during the “recovery” of COVID-19. Crawford estimated she received $3,000, which was a lease payment on her new restaurant.“That grant kept me going for one more month. I was still waiting for approvals from the Health Department, and I had to pay the lease and utilities,” Crawford said. “I was considering whether I needed to take out a loan before that grant came through. Then my approvals came in, and I never needed the loan.”Crawford started cooking with her mother, and worked in several restaurants, including Roy Rogers, picking up the tools she needed to eventually realize her own dream. Five years ago, she started attending free business development programs offered by the CDCC to edge closer to a reality.Today, Tomeka’s Homestyle Eatery is open three days a week, and Crawford is cooking the food she loves: seafood, jumbo lump crab cake, mac and cheese and more. The crab cakes often sell out, and she’s seen between 200 and 250 platters served on her open days.“I do want to open for more days, and have an event space. But it’s baby steps from here. I’m not sure what the future holds. But given what happened even before the pandemic, I really had to alternate from the plan,” she said.‘Real lasting effects’For Kristin Garramone, the co-owner of Roma Italian Ristorantein Dover, the grant program served as a significant stopgap for bills. The restaurant received roughly $83,000, she estimated, and it was used to cover labor costs for 17 employees, insurance, phone bills and other outstanding bills.“The first year of COVID was absolutely devastating – financially and emotionally. It was challenging managing our overhead, payments and the constant fear of someone getting sick,” she said. “At the worst point of it was mid-2020 our revenue was down 32%. We cut the menu back, put some of our staff on unemployment and started taking any takeout work possible.”Roma has been in business for 50 years, started by Kristen’s father-in-law and native Italian Giuseppe Garramone as a sub and pizza shop. His son worked alongside him for decades before taking over the business in 1999. Over the years, Roma added more dining rooms and, in 2015, the cocktail longue Sol Tempo was added.Kristin Garramone said the couple spent thousands of dollars during the early months of the pandemic. “We would be up at night, not knowing if that money was gone or not,” Kristin Garramone said. I didn’t think [the grant program] was real when I first heard about it, to be honest. But we got through it, and the program helped. Now we’re looking to manage our price points and hire people for skills.”“This was a large hiccup, and we’re going to keep fighting,” she added.Meanwhile, Robert Ware, who owns two companies – Home Instead Senior Care and Merry Maids – faced unique struggles in the last two years. Families moved their elderly relatives to their homes due to the fear of living in congregate settings, so his senior care business suffered. Merry Maids enjoyed some business looking for disinfectant services, but people were still leery.“Or revenue really dropped off, and we never really regained it. I think we were down 40% year-over-year in 2020,” Ware said. “People think we’re out of this so-called pandemic, but it had some real lasting effects. It’s marketing dollars, it’s having an equal cash flow, it’s considering what equipment we need.”Ware said he received $50,000 for each business, which helped replenish the savings and made it possible to buy more equipment. But still, the effects still linger.“Believe me, when you lose 40% of your revenue, you have to make it up somehow. We used savings and we had to cut back on administrative staff. And from a big picture standpoint, we still need people in the workforce. Before you could choose between five applicants, but now you’re hoping someone comes for the interview,” he said.
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