A Comprehensive Guide for Restaurant Owners: Applying for the Employee Retention Credit (ERC)

Restaurant Employee Retention Credit (ERC)

Written by Bienvenu Mavakala

August 14, 2023

In the world of gastronomy, where margins can be thin and unexpected disruptions many, restaurant owners often grapple with maintaining stability, especially when it comes to retaining valued employees. The Employee Retention Credit (ERC) emerges as a beacon of hope during such tumultuous times, offering financial relief and a measure of security. Specifically designed to support businesses that have faced economic hardships, the ERC has been a lifeline for countless restaurants.


This guide will delve into the nuances of the ERC, its origins, its benefits specifically tailored to restaurants, and a guide to applying for it. Whether you’re a seasoned restaurant owner or new to the industry, this guide aims to simplify the complexities of the ERC, ensuring your establishment remains resilient and ready for future growth.

Background of the Employee Retention Credit

In the face of economic instability, the need for robust financial support mechanisms for businesses becomes crucial. Enter the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERC) – a provision that underscores the importance of keeping the heart of any establishment, its employees, beating strongly even during tough times.

Origins and Purpose of the ERC

The ERC was initially introduced as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in early 2020. As COVID-19 swept across the globe, it upended industries, with restaurants being one of the hardest hit. Many establishments faced the grim reality of either letting go of their staff or closing their doors for good.

Recent Updates or Changes Relevant to Restaurant Owners

As the landscape of the pandemic evolved, so did the provisions of the ERC. It underwent several adjustments and expansions over time to cater more effectively to the shifting needs of businesses. Some of these ERC key changes for restaurants included:

Increased Credit Amount: Originally set at 50% of qualified wages, it was later increased, allowing businesses to claim a more substantial credit and provide greater financial relief.

Extended Eligibility Period: Initially planned as a short-term relief measure, the eligibility period for the ERC was extended, ensuring businesses had a longer window to claim and benefit from the credit.

Refinement of Eligibility Criteria: Over time, definitions of what constituted a significant decline in business were fine-tuned, ensuring a broader range of establishments, including restaurants with varying degrees of impact, could qualify.

For restaurant owners, these updates signified a renewed commitment from the government to support an industry that not only feeds but also employs millions. With each change, the pathway to leverage the ERC became clearer, enabling restaurateurs to navigate the economic storm with a bit more confidence.

Initially, the ERTC was designed for businesses with up to 100 employees, offering a maximum of $5,000 per employee for wages and benefits. The qualifications for this were:

  • A drop in gross receipts by half or
  • A government-imposed limitation on operational capacity.

Despite these provisions, many restaurants did not tap into the ERC in 2020. The reason? Those who benefited from a PPP forgivable loan were initially not permitted to claim the ERTC. While there were stipulations on the utilization of the PPP loan, its overall financial aid was more substantial.

By the end of 2020, the boundaries around the ERTC were redefined. Recognizing the amplified needs of small businesses, Congress not only permitted simultaneous access to both PPP loans and ERTC but also extended the ERTC’s duration and scale

Come 2021, businesses housing up to 500 employees were now eligible for a heightened $7,000 per employee for their wages and related benefits. To qualify, these businesses need to:

  • Register a decline in gross receipts by at least 20% for the respective quarter or
  • Operate under a government-enforced capacity limit.

What Qualifies Restaurants for the ERC?


As the ERC evolved, its net widened, aiming to catch as many struggling businesses as possible and offer them a financial cushion. However, specific criteria need to be met to benefit from this incentive. For restaurant owners, understanding these prerequisites is crucial, ensuring that they can confidently navigate the application process and maximize their claims.

General Eligibility Criteria:

Significant Decline in Revenue: To qualify, businesses must demonstrate a significant reduction in gross receipts in a particular quarter compared to the same quarter in 2019. The specific percentage drop required has varied with different phases of the ERC.

Operational Constraints: Restaurants that were fully or partially suspended due to government-mandated COVID-19 related restrictions can also qualify, regardless of the revenue drop.

Exclusion of PPP Recipients: Initially, businesses that received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans were ineligible for the ERC. However, this stipulation was later adjusted, allowing businesses to benefit from both, but not for the same payroll costs.

ERC | Special Considerations for Restaurants and Hospitality Businesses:

Tip Allocation: Many restaurant employees receive a significant portion of their wages in the form of tips. The ERC offers guidelines on how to consider tipped wages when calculating the credit.

Seasonal Operations: Restaurants operating seasonally or those which see variations in operational months can have different criteria to evaluate their eligibility based on revenue comparisons.

Multiple Locations and Chains: For restaurant chains or owners with multiple establishments, there are specific aggregation rules which dictate how the eligibility is determined, based on combined revenue and other operational metrics.

New Restaurants: Establishments that began their operations in 2020 or later have specific provisions that allow them to qualify even without the standard 2019 comparative metrics.

Benefits of the ERC for Restaurants 

Restaurant Employee Retention Credit (ERC)

While the ERC’s overarching objective is to support businesses in retaining employees during economic downturns, restaurants, with their unique challenges and operating nuances, can harness specific benefits from this credit. Understanding these advantages not only aids in decision-making but also paints a picture of how the ERC can significantly impact a restaurant’s operations and future prospects.

Monetary Advantages and Impact on Finances

Immediate Cash Flow Boost: The ERC, being a refundable tax credit, can provide restaurants with an immediate influx of cash. For establishments grappling with liquidity issues, this can be the lifeline that ensures continued operations.

Reduction in Payroll Tax Burden: By offsetting certain employment taxes, restaurants can experience a noticeable reduction in their payroll tax liabilities. This can be instrumental in managing overheads and ensuring the timely payment of staff wages.

Claiming Past Credits: If a restaurant identifies that they were eligible in past quarters but didn’t claim the credit, they can amend payroll tax returns to secure those benefits retroactively, further aiding cash flow.

Potential Impact on Employee Morale and Retention

Job Security for Employees: By leveraging the ERC, restaurants can avoid or minimize layoffs. This not only helps in retaining skilled staff but also boosts morale, as employees feel more secure in their roles.

Rehiring and Expansion: With the added financial buffer from the ERC, some restaurants might find themselves in a position to rehire staff they had previously let go or even consider expanding their team.

Strengthening Employer-Employee Relationships: In an industry where employee turnover can be high, the act of ensuring job security during challenging times can foster loyalty and a stronger bond between the restaurant and its team.

ERC for Restaurants Indirect Benefits Worth Noting

Positive Public Perception: Restaurants that manage to retain their employees, especially during trying economic conditions, can be viewed positively by their community, enhancing their reputation and potentially attracting more customers.

Operational Continuity: By retaining experienced staff, restaurants can ensure that their service quality remains consistent, avoiding potential disruptions that could arise from training new hires.

Readiness for Economic Recovery:  When the economy starts showing signs of recovery, restaurants that have managed to maintain their staff are better positioned to capitalize on increasing patronage, ensuring they’re not caught short-staffed during a potential surge in business.

While the financial relief provided by the ERC is undeniably its primary allure, it’s essential to appreciate the ripple effect this credit can have on various facets of a restaurant’s operations. From solidifying the bond with employees to preparing the establishment for brighter days ahead, the ERC’s benefits are manifold and transformative.

How Does the Restaurant Employee Retention Credit Function?

Once restaurant owners recognize the value of the Employee Retention Credit, the next step is navigating the application process. While the ERC provides substantial benefits, it’s essential to ensure that every step of the application is done correctly to maximize those benefits and avoid potential pitfalls. Here’s a step-by-step guide for restaurateurs:

Understanding the ever-changing eligibility criteria and credit amounts of the ERC program can be challenging for restaurant proprietors. They often find it perplexing to ascertain qualifications and calculate their entitled credit.

For maximizing this tax benefit, you should be adept at identifying eligible quarters and understanding which employee salaries and expenses qualify.

To claim the Employee Retention Tax Credit, businesses first establish their eligibility. They then compute the credit for each pay cycle, subtract this from their payroll tax deposit, and record the credit on IRS Form 941-X. This amended form adjusts the original Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return (Form 941) and is usually due within 30 days after a quarter concludes.

If the credit surpasses the tax deposit, employers could previously apply for an advance using Form 7200 (now obsolete for ERC) to get a refund for the extra amount. With the program’s conclusion, the credit claim procedure has evolved.

Step-by-Step Guide for the Employee Retention Tax Credit for Restaurants 

1. Determine Eligibility

To claim the Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERC), employers first needed to determine their eligibility and then estimate the credit amount for each pay period. 

2. Gather Necessary Documentation

   – Financial statements showcasing revenue for the relevant quarters.

   – Payroll records, including details about tipped wages.

   – Documentation on any government-mandated restrictions impacting operations.

3. Calculate the Credit Amount

   – Deduct the total qualified wages (including certain health plan expenses) paid to employees during eligible quarters.

   – Multiply by the applicable percentage (as outlined in the latest ERC provisions).

4. Claim the Credit

   – For businesses that use payroll service providers: Coordinate with them, as they can often assist in claiming the ERC on your behalf.

   – For those handling payroll in-house: Use Form 941, Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, to claim the credit. Ensure you fill out the correct lines associated with the ERC.

5. Await Processing and Approval

Once the application is submitted, the IRS will process the claim. If all is in order, they’ll either refund the credit amount or apply it against any existing tax liabilities.

6. Stay Updated with Any Changes

Given the evolving nature of the ERC, always keep an eye on announcements from the IRS or the Treasury. Adjustments in the credit percentage, eligibility criteria, or other nuances can affect how you claim the credit in subsequent quarters.

What to Expect ERC Restaurant Post-Application

Refunds:  If your ERC exceeds your payroll tax liabilities, the excess amount is refundable. Expect this refund to be processed and delivered in a manner similar to other tax refunds.

Inquiries or Clarifications: The IRS might reach out if they require additional information or if there are discrepancies in the application. Always respond promptly and provide any necessary documentation.

Amending Past Returns: If you discover you were eligible in previous quarters but didn’t apply, you can amend past payroll tax returns using Form 941-X. This allows you to claim the credit retroactively.

What Establishments Are Considered Restaurants? 


In the U.S., the definition of a restaurant can vary slightly depending on the context (e.g., tax purposes, licensing, or health codes). However, in general terms, a restaurant is an establishment where food and drink are prepared and served to customers in exchange for money.

Establishments considered restaurants typically include:

  • Traditional Sit-down Restaurants: These establishments have wait staff and offer meals that are consumed on the premises.
  • Fast Food Restaurants or Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs): These are establishments that offer a limited menu of fast-prepared food items or meals. Customers order at a counter and then either take the food to go or eat it on the premises.
  • Fast Casual Restaurants: These combine elements of fast food and sit-down dining. Customers typically order at a counter but then receive higher-quality or unique food in a more comfortable, upscale setting than a typical fast-food restaurant.
  • Cafes or Coffee Shops: While their primary product might be coffee or tea, many also offer sandwiches, pastries, and other light meals.
  • Buffets: Customers serve themselves from a variety of dishes set out in a large dining area.
  • Food Trucks: Mobile establishments that prepare and serve food.
  • Pizzerias: Restaurants that specialize in preparing and serving pizza.
  • Diners: Typically, these are casual eateries with a broad menu and extended hours.
  • Bistros: Smaller restaurants, often with a more intimate setting, that serve moderate-priced, simple meals in a modest setting.
  • Pop-ups: Temporary restaurants, often operating from a private home, former factory, or similar and during festivals.
  • Fine Dining: Upscale restaurants with high-quality food, service, and ambiance.


Bakeries or Delis (with seating areas): Some bakeries or delicatessens offer seating for customers to eat the food they purchase on the premises.

Bars, Pubs, and Taverns: While their primary focus might be on serving alcohol, many also offer a menu of food items.

Common ERC Restaurant Application Pitfalls and Tips to Avoid Them

Navigating the complexities of financial incentives like the ERC can be daunting, and inadvertent mistakes can occur. However, by understanding the common pitfalls associated with the ERC application, restaurant owners can sidestep these issues and ensure a smooth claim process. Here’s a rundown of these pitfalls and practical advice on avoiding them:

Common Mistakes When Applying for the ERC:

  1. Double-Dipping with Other Credits: Some businesses mistakenly claim wages for both the ERC and other tax credits, such as the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). This can lead to complications and potential penalties.

Keep a clear record of which wages are allocated to which credits. Consult with a financial professional to ensure there’s no overlap.

  1. Misunderstanding the ‘Significant Decline in Revenue’ Clause: Some restaurant owners might misconstrue the specific percentage drop required to qualify, leading to ineligible claims.

Regularly revisit the eligibility criteria and compare quarterly revenues diligently. If in doubt, seek clarity from a financial advisor.

  1. Overlooking the Updates to ERC Provisions: With several amendments made to the ERC over time, businesses may unknowingly rely on outdated information.

Stay updated with official announcements from the IRS and Treasury. Consider joining restaurant industry associations or forums that relay such updates to their members.

  1. Misclassifying Employees and Wages: Restaurants, with their mix of full-time, part-time, and tipped employees, might incorrectly classify or calculate wages, affecting the claim amount.

Maintain meticulous payroll records. Ensure that tipped wages, bonuses, and other compensation are correctly factored into the credit calculation.

  1. Improper Documentation: Inadequate or incorrect documentation can delay processing or lead to rejected claims.

Document every relevant detail, from revenue statements to payroll slips, and ensure they are easily accessible. Consider using digital accounting tools to streamline this process.

Given the complexities and potential pitfalls of the ERC application for restaurants, it’s crucial to be well-informed and diligent in the application process. Reaching out to the ERC specialists at Peach Capital can provide valuable guidance, ensuring restaurant owners avoid common mistakes and optimize their chances for a successful claim.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the Employee Retention Credit for Restaurants

Navigating the nuances of the ERC can spark a plethora of questions, especially for restaurant owners juggling multiple operational concerns. This section aims to answer some of the most frequently asked questions, providing clarity and simplifying the process.

  1. Can I claim the ERC if I have already received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan?

Yes, you can claim the ERC even if you’ve received a PPP loan. However, you cannot “double-dip” by using both the PPP funds and the ERC for the same payroll costs. It’s vital to ensure that there’s no overlap in the wages for which you’re seeking relief.

  1. What happens if I realize I was eligible for the ERC in the past quarter but didn’t claim it?

You can retroactively claim the ERC by amending your payroll tax returns using Form 941-X for the relevant quarters. Ensure that you have all the necessary documentation and wage calculations accurate for the amended return.

  1. How does the ERC work for restaurants with multiple locations?

Answer: If a restaurant operates multiple locations under a single employer identification number (EIN), they’re considered a single employer. The eligibility criteria, like a significant decline in revenue, will be based on combined numbers. However, each location’s individual circumstances regarding operational restrictions may vary, so ensure you document impacts accurately for each one.

  1. Can part-time or seasonal workers’ wages be counted for the ERC?

Yes, wages paid to both part-time and seasonal workers during eligible quarters can be counted when calculating the ERC. This includes their regular wages, tips, and certain health care costs.

  1. How will the credit be paid out to me?

The ERC is primarily a reduction in the payroll taxes you owe. If your credit exceeds your payroll tax liability, the excess amount is refundable. The IRS will either send you a refund or apply it against any other outstanding tax liabilities.

  1. What if my restaurant started operations in 2020 or later?

Restaurants that began operations in 2020 or later can still qualify for the ERC. The eligibility will be based on the specific provisions for newer businesses, focusing on the quarters they were operational. Make sure to refer to the most recent ERC guidelines or consult with a financial professional for specifics.

  1. Will the ERC be available beyond the current year?

The availability of the ERC beyond the current year depends on legislative decisions. As of the last update, the credit has been extended through certain quarters. It’s crucial to keep an eye on official announcements from the IRS or Treasury for any changes.

  1. Can I use the RFF (Restaurant Revitalization Fund) along with the ERC?

Yes, you can benefit from both the RFF and the ERC. However, just like with PPP, you cannot claim the same expenses under both programs. It’s essential to ensure a clear distinction between the costs covered by RFF and those claimed under the ERC.

Real-life Success Stories: The ERC in Action

Beyond the guidelines and processes, sometimes the most powerful motivators are the stories of those who’ve walked the path before us. For restaurateurs considering the Employee Retention Credit, real-life success stories can offer both inspiration and insights. Here’s a look at a few restaurants that leveraged the ERC to their advantage:

Cityscape Bistro – Turning the Tables on Shutdowns

Located in the heart of bustling San Francisco, Cityscape Bistro faced full shutdowns due to government mandates. With the overheads mounting and revenue hitting rock bottom, the ERC came as a beacon of hope. By claiming the credit, the owner managed to retain 90% of the staff, ensuring that once doors reopened, Cityscape Bistro was back to serving its patrons without missing a beat.

Rustic Roots – Overcoming Newbie Challenges

Having just opened its doors in late 2019, Rustic Roots faced the double challenge of establishing its brand and navigating the financial implications of the pandemic. With no 2019 revenues to compare, the ERC’s provisions for newer establishments were a godsend. Claiming the credit enabled them to continue marketing efforts, ensuring their brand continued to grow despite the challenging times.

Golden Chain Eatery – Multiplying Benefits Across Chains

A popular chain with multiple locations across the state, Golden Chain Eatery faced diverse challenges. While some locations experienced partial shutdowns, others faced significant revenue declines. The centralized management used the ERC to its fullest, applying the credit across locations, ensuring uniformity in staff retention and operational continuity.

Peach Capital: Your Trusted Partner in Navigating ERC Applications and Ensuring Financial Support

Navigating the intricate nuances of the ERC application is a challenge that many restaurant owners face. Recognizing this, we at Peach Capital not only offer expert guidance on the application process but also provide an ERC advance to support businesses in their time of need. What sets us apart is our flexibility and commitment to our clients; even if you’ve already initiated your application, we warmly welcome you to seek our expertise. With our tailored approach, we ensure that ongoing applications are meticulously reviewed, potential pitfalls are identified, and necessary adjustments are made for a seamless and successful claim. With Peach Capital, you gain a partner dedicated to your financial well-being every step of the way.




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