Sign up for The Curve, a free coronavirus newsletter delivered every weeknight.

Every morning, Diego Galicia gets to his restaurant around 9 or 10 o’clock. He co-owns and operates Kumo, a small restaurant in Olmos Park with fellow chef Rico Torres, and his priority most mornings is overseeing desserts.

Before it was Kumo, which opened in November, the small boxcar-turned-restaurant space had a single long table and functioned as the home of Mixtli, the duo’s progressive Mexican concept that they plan to reopen this spring in a larger space in Southtown. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Kumo has six small tables instead.

The company was one of more than 200 food and beverage businesses that received coronavirus relief grants distributed by the City of San Antonio by the end of January. And as of February, more relief is on its way.

The $50,000 grant was “a godsend,” Galicia said. Though the company that owns both Mixtli and Kumo only has four employees – two of whom are Galicia and Torres – it still has bills to pay.

“Without the grant, we wouldn’t have been able to keep our health benefits going,” Galicia said. “That was a big blessing. Because if one of us got sick, we need that – we need access to health insurance, we need doctors.”

The City of San Antonio, with the administrative help of LiftFund, distributed more than $8.4 million in relief dollars to 211 local restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and catering companies. That money was part of the City coronavirus recovery plan‘s small-business grant program, which in July invited San Antonio-based businesses and nonprofits with 20 or fewer employees and a budget of less than $2 million to apply.

The City budgeted more than $560 million for overall coronavirus recovery and response as of December; $270 million of that came from federal coronavirus relief dollars directly provided to the City. The U.S. Treasury did not mandate specific amounts for small-business relief.

Fifty-two of the food and beverage businesses are in City Council District 1, which encompasses the downtown area and central city and is densely populated with bars and restaurants. They received $2.4 million.

Johnny Hernandez, the chef behind La Gloria restaurants, received $75,000 from the City for his restaurant near the Dominion. One hundred percent of that sum went to paying his employees at that location, he said. Before the pandemic, he had 60 to 70 working there. Now, the number is closer to 20.

Hernandez applied for the grant the first day he could, he said. The City opened its small business grant applications last July.

“I was up until midnight filling that out,” he said.

The City’s small-business grant program was separate from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which distributed forgivable loans to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. The program was created specifically to keep paying employees, while the City’s small-business grant does not have that stipulation.

In addition to his stand-alone restaurants at the Pearl downtown and in the Dominion, he has businesses in the airport, Henry B. González Convention Center, the AT&T Center, and a catering company. All of those suffered during the pandemic, he said, especially catering.

“I’ve been in catering for 25 years and that makes up half of our company,” Hernandez said. “The hardest-hit sectors of our industry are catering and bars. … And all of that business is gone for a year.”

Hernandez counts himself as lucky in the food and beverage industry.

“I’m grateful to have restaurants,” he said.

Hernandez is among 32 food and beverage business operators in District 8 to receive a grant from the City. District 8 restaurants and bars received $1.4 million in local coronavirus relief. 

Council DistrictNumber of food and beverage grantsAmount distributed
District 152$2,387,338
District 232$957,840
District 314$377,350
District 45$160,000
District 520$650,000
District 611$396,622
District 710$392,600
District 832$1,432,000
District 923$1,115,669
District 1012$610,000
Source: City of San Antonio

Hernandez plans on applying for more relief funding when it becomes available. Congress just passed a $1.9 trillion spending COVID-19 relief bill that includes direct aid to cities and counties, and City Council voted in February to distribute $14 million specifically to local food and beverage establishments, an effort spearheaded by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) through a Council Consideration Request.

Hernandez said he is watching for the next opportunity to apply.

“We’ve been through a lot,” he said. “But we’re a lot stronger, smarter, leaner, more efficient, and the sky’s the limit. We’ve been very creative. We’ve been very resourceful. These grants are a blessing. We’ve utilized them as best we can and we’ve been very careful how we spend money. A huge part of my portfolio is destroyed.” 

Galicia said he was relieved to have gotten funding from the City – especially since Mixtli did not make the cut when he first applied.

“Months went by, and I got a phone call [around November] from a gentleman from LiftFund asking me to give him a couple of CPS bills just to certify that our address was the business address,” Galicia said. “And I said sure, I did, and he called me later in the day saying that we would receive some of the grants that the City was giving out. And that was awesome. It was life-changing for us.”

Chefs Rico Torres (left) and Diego Galicia of restaurants Mixtli and Kumo in 2018. Credit: Courtesy / Josh Huskin

Rene’e Park co-owns and operates Aloha Events with her husband, Gerardo Hernandez. The company includes a catering business and their restaurant, Aloha Kitchen, in Northeast San Antonio. Park said they had to let go of their employees in March 2020, and they have been a two-person operation since.

The City gave Aloha Events a $50,000 grant, which Park said was critical to keeping their business running.

“I don’t think we would have survived without it,” she said. “It would have been a whole lot tougher.”

The grant money went toward paying rent and other bills to keep Aloha Kitchen open, Park said. She also adapted the business to bring in more revenue during the pandemic by signing up for delivery services like DoorDash and UberEats and keeping the kitchen open later to expand the customer base. But even with that, the business was barely surviving.

“Our CPA … said, ‘If you can get some type of help, get it,'” she said.

“I couldn’t pay him either,” she added.

All three restaurateurs stressed the passion that drives their careers. Kumo, conceived as a temporary project that will close at the end of March, serves only about 20 people per day while it operates at 50% capacity, but Galicia said that is enough. And Hernandez estimated, with an “optimistic” lens, that business would pick back up in May or June, after more of the population is vaccinated and comfortable returning to in-person dining. But until then, the City’s financial assistance was a “tremendous help” to all of the businesses that received it, he said.

Park’s commitment to Aloha Events and Aloha Kitchen comes from her mother. Her parents are both from Hawaii and came to the mainland through the military before Hawaii became a state, she said. Her mother was shocked at the prejudice she faced when stationed in Alabama, but she was determined to “spread the aloha,” Park said.

“The natives from Hawaii that migrate to the mainland, they miss home, so here’s another place we can share stories and food and good times,” she said. “That’s why we do what we do. Hopefully, we can keep passing the culture on, especially for those who are not from the island.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.