Struggling coffee shop owner finally gets grant money — but only with a reporter’s help. Many small businesses have encountered problems with the provincial grant application process

Struggling coffee shop owner finally gets grant money — but only with a reporter’s help. Many small businesses have encountered problems with the provincial grant application process

When he approached a reporter in late May, Omar Makhlouf hoped it might help him figure out why he’d been denied one of Ontario’s small business grants, but he never thought it could actually get the decision reversed.

Except it did. And fast. The approval was in his inbox the next day.

“How come it took so long?” Makhlouf, 29, who owns Mallo, a popular Annex coffee shop, asked the government employee who called to let him know he would indeed get the grant. “It took the media getting involved for you to call me. What a coincidence.”

Makhlouf is not the only one who has that noted. Other entrepreneurs the Star spoke to said it wasn’t until they sought help from the media or a political foe that they began to get help, answers and action about their Ontario Small Business Support Grant. The emergency funding is intended to help struggling businesses stay afloat during this pandemic, when lockdowns have cut sharply into revenues. But the program appears to have challenges that it only acknowledges — and corrects — in the face of outside pressure.

“While we made every effort to ensure the application process was as simple and straightforward as possible,” Kwok Wong, senior issues and media adviser for the Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, told the Star. “Any program this necessary and responsive to such demand is going to have its implementation challenges… Our staff continue to work hard, seven days a week, to followup on applicants that have had challenges with their applications.”

Since January, provincial authorities have given out more than $2.9 billion in OSBSG funding to more than 110,000 small businesses across Ontario, Wong said by email. The ministry has tripled its staff in order to expedite the process. But it still takes time to review the applications and disseminate the money, the email said.

If the applications contain errors or omissions, the process takes even longer. To date, ministry staff have handled more than 150,000 calls from applicants asking for help, the email said.

Applicants with queries should contact the governments Client Care Line at 416-325-6691 (toll-free at 1-855-216-3090) and SmallBusSupportGrant@ontario.ca.

The ministry has made improvements with respect to “clarifying eligibility, helping applicants understand the requirements for supporting documentation and answering their questions,” the email said.

Small businesses across the province that have fewer than 100 staff and took a major hit from the pandemic are eligible for the grant.

Maria Galipo, CEO of the Sicilian Sidewalk Cafe on College Street, had a hard time getting someone on the phone who could help her troubleshoot the online application when she was having problems. Like Makhlouf she too couldn’t figure out why she was denied a portion of the grant — or why no one ever responded to her emails.

She didn’t get anywhere until she complained to Jessica Bell, NDP MPP for University-Rosedale — and then, in short order, her application was also approved. “That’s really what did it.”

Over the last few months, Bell said, her office has been inundated with calls and emails from frustrated business owners, prompting her to survey 14,000 residents and every Business Improvement Association in her riding.

Bell wrote to the Minister of Finance on May 6 letter conveying the results of her survey that found about 86 per cent of eligible business owners who applied for the grant had not yet received the funding. She said business owners had trouble reaching a government representative on the phone and if they finally did, it was hard to get useful information. The letter said a large number of businesses reported that their applications had been wrongfully denied and there was no clear recourse to appeal.

Bell was happy to hear recently that her efforts and the media pressure had indeed made a difference, but, she said, the grant program is broken. Her government has already asked the auditor general to look into it.

“It shouldn’t take a reporter and a politician to get involved in a small business application,” Bell said. “It should be fast and fair for every eligible business and it is not.”

Right now, Makhlouf is happy is application was finally approved. When he submitted his online application in January, he was hoping for only $10,000. Anything would have helped. Since the pandemic began revenues have been cut in half, he said. When he found out in late April that he wouldn’t be getting any grant money, he was devastated. He didn’t know how he would make rent, pay staff and live, he said. He was also confused as to how he’d been denied because he met all the eligibility criteria. Mallo, is a tiny, but in-demand coffee shop on Bathurst Street just south of Bloor Street, with five employees.

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But what really drove him crazy was that no one had answered his email asking why he’d been denied — and he couldn’t get anyone on the phone. It was a last-ditch effort to go to the media, Makhlouf said. He was shocked by how fast the government responded once he did — and that he will now get the full $40.000.

“It is going to clear out the debt I’ve accrued since the start of the pandemic,” he said. “That’s amazing. It’s a great program as long as it works.”

Michele Henry is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star, writing health and education stories. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry

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