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Big Night Restaurants Shutter Again After Having Millions in SBA Grants Rescinded

Petit Marlowe and Leo’s Oyster Bar are temporarily back on ice, despite being promised millions in federal funding 

Leo’s Oyster Bar Patricia Chang

Anna Weinberg of Big Night Restaurant Group was ecstatic in June, when she received approval for nearly $10 million in grant money from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund. She applied early — in the priority group of businesses owned by women, people of color, and veterans — and based on past revenue, was approved for $3.7 million at Marlowe and Petit Marlowe, $1.8 million at Leo’s Oyster Bar, and $4.2 million for the Cavalier. Speaking with Eater SF at that time, she said she planned to steadily reopen her restaurants, throw some caviar parties this summer, and bring back “the roaring ’20s” to San Francisco.

But only a month later, Weinberg received notification that at least part of that money was being rescinded. Marlowe was able to keep its grant, but Leo’s Oyster Bar and the Cavalier lost theirs, at least for the time being. Because of the dates those two businesses received approval, their grants got snarled in the lawsuits filed against the RRF by a couple of Trump-aligned groups, which claim the funds were discriminatory against white men. Until that litigation is resolved, Weinberg has no idea if and when Leo’s and the Cavalier will receive a cent.

So the Big Night Restaurant Group went from expecting to receive $9.7 million to receiving $3.7 million. While that might not sound like a small consolation prize, Weinberg said it’s not clear if she can share that money between the various restaurants, though she’s petitioning the RRF in order to at least spread out the funds. And after an already chaotic year, it upended their reopening plans. “One morning I had nearly 10 million bucks, and by the end of the day I didn’t have it anymore,” Weinberg says. “That’s the thing that’s so maddening to me … and there’s been zero explanation.”

Three of the Big Night restaurants are temporarily closed: Marlowe was hoping to close for renovations, but now with the grant money, it’s expected to reopen first, on August 8. Petit Marlowe was slated to reopen as the new Petit Flea at the end of June, but that’s been pushed back. Leo’s Oyster Bar was due to reopen on June 15, as well as pop up at St Joseph’s Art Society, but the restaurant is still shuttered, although the oyster and caviar pop-ups are still slated to start on August 4. Weinberg describes frantically spending money, ordering renovations and repairs, kitchen equipment, and wine, then backpedaling.

The Cavalier has already reopened in the base of the Hotel Zetta, and is splitting off from the rest of the group. It’s now under the sole ownership of James Nicholas.

Park Tavern falls under a slightly different partnership with Dave Stanton, who’s now retiring and passing the restaurant to Weinberg and chef Jennifer Puccio. Park Tavern got approval and got to keep its grant, so it’s proceeding to plan, and closing temporarily for renovations. On the one hand, for restaurants that did get money, “It’s this moment in time like never before,” Weinberg says. “We’ve been holding that building together with tape. It’s a historical building …. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, to have, like, Vegas money.”

Meanwhile, Tosca Cafe, which also falls under a different partnership with Weinberg, chef Nancy Oakes, and designer Ken Fulk, was never even eligible to apply for a grant, because it only recently reopened after being closed for two years, and couldn’t show revenue. So Tosca is running entirely on its own dollars these days. (Completely separately, Nancy Oakes’s other restaurant Boulevard is listed as receiving $5 million, catapulting it in the top ten restaurants to receive funding in SF.)

The hot mess that Weinberg is describing within her restaurant group in San Francisco is also simmering across the country. More than 2,900 businesses owned by women, people of color, and veterans had RRF grants rescinded due to the Trump-aligned lawsuits, and are now scrambling to figure out if and when they’ll ever see that money. Bob Freeman, owner of the Buena Vista Cafe, was also approved early as a veteran, and also had his grant rescinded, although he declined to share the exact amount with Eater. When the full list of recipients was finally announced at the beginning of July, at least in the Bay Area, most of that money went to chains like Panera, the SF Chronicle confirmed.

Weinberg says she’s certainly grateful for the $3.7 million granted to Marlowe, but that the chaos of the entire situation creates a “terrible labor model,” where restaurants scramble to reopen and hire back staff, then wind up laying them off again. She says that her heart goes out to any first-time restaurant owner, and can’t even imagine navigating these online portals with English as a second language. “If I was opening my first restaurant, I wouldn’t have even thought to have applied for it,” Weinberg says.