Like other restaurants, Nonna Rosa’s Ristorante Italiano in Robbinsdale has been hit hard by COVID-19.

During its 10 years in business, the family-owned restaurant has established itself as a go-to place for authentic Italian food inspired by the restaurant’s namesake, the mother-in-law of co-owner Tina Suglia.

The restaurant had done well, but then came the pandemic, which robbed Nonna Rosa’s of some of its most lucrative sources of revenue, including catering business, special events, indoor dining to a great extent and more.

Making matters worse, “Nonna Rosa (Grandma Rosa) herself is stuck in Italy. She can’t even come here,” said Suglia, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Francesco Suglia, a chef and native of Italy.

Though the business is not out of the woods, Nonna Rosa’s has gained some relief in the form of a $10,000 small business grant awarded by Hennepin County. The grant is part of a $21 million pool of CARES Act money designed to help small businesses weather the COVID storm.

The money is targeted to the most vulnerable businesses, including those with no more than 20 employees and self-employed folks with no payroll. The county is distributing the funds with outreach help from community organizations.

Hennepin County received 2,049 applications for the first round of $10,000 grants, which closed May 8. That includes 852 approved applications and 689 pending applications, with 508 deemed ineligible, according to the county.

The second round, which closed June 5, offered $1,500 to $5,000 grants for self-employed entrepreneurs.

Patricia Fitzgerald, economic and community development manager at Hennepin County, said another $5 million to $7 million in small business relief funds will be made available in the next round.

“We don’t see the need going away,” Fitzgerald said.

Mahomud Ali, owner of Midwest Auto Repair in Minneapolis, said the $10,000 grant he received has helped his business keep up with bills amid the pandemic. The business has five employees, he said.

Like Noona Rosa’s, Midwest Auto Repair saw a steep drop in business.

“Nobody wants to fix their cars, because there are no cars on the road,” Ali said.

The Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority established the Small Business Relief Program in April.

Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando, chair of the Hennepin County HRA, said the program is a “critical step that will provide small local businesses with emergency funding.”

So far, 41% of grants to businesses with 1-20 employees have been to Black, Indigenous, or people of color-owned businesses, and 57% of applicants to the self-employed entrepreneur fund have been to minority-owned businesses, she said.

Fitzgerald said the program uses a lottery system instead of taking a “first-come, first-served” approach. A “first-come” approach typically benefits the “most sophisticated, well established organizations,” which tend to line up first for assistance, Fitzgerald said.

For her part, Tina Suglia said she has never been one to ask for financial assistance. But the pandemic is a game-changer, as it took a big bite out of usually-reliable revenue sources, she said.

For example, the restaurant historically catered to big events, which have been canceled because of COVID. Other occasions that drew big crowds to the restaurant, such as Mother’s Day, came and went at a time when the restaurant was off-limits to indoor dining, she said.

As part of the application process, businesses have to prove “significant loss” in sales and volume, Suglia noted.

“Unfortunately, that was the easiest part of the process,” she said.

Suglia said the county program fills in some of the gaps left by the Payment Protection Program, which assisted with rent and payroll expenses. The county money helps with other expenses, such as stocking the refrigerators.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable. Put another way, $10,000 might not do much for a big business, but for Nonna Rosa’s it’s “a month of groceries. My groceries are what make me money at the end of the day.”

One positive: The restaurant offers patio service, which attracts customers during the summer. But “our next blow is, ‘What is going to happen in the fall when people don’t want to sit on a patio anymore?’” she said.

“We have to live to die another day. We just don’t know when that day is.”

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