WOONSOCKET – With a deteriorating facade and plywood-covered windows, the ornate, red brick building located opposite Consumers Oil is looking very tired these days, but it has good bones.
Just don't go there looking for a steak dinner, because one thing 148 Hamlet Ave. is not is the home of Perry's Catering Inc., recipient of a $154,553 grant from the Small Business Administration's Restaurant Revitalization Fund. The grant represents just a tiny portion of some $106 million the SBA has awarded to hundreds of businesses in Rhode Island from a $28.6 billion national program aimed at shoring up bars, restaurants, lounges and entertainment businesses hammered by the pandemic.
The SBA released a list of Rhode Island recipients several weeks ago, and Perry's Catering Inc. was among a handful of local grantees on it, some of which are household names in the city's restaurant business. They included companies like Meldi Maa, the owners of River Falls Restaurant, which received $317,382; New Empire Buffet, $521,506; and K&V Enterprises, the operators of Patriots Diner, which received $302,353.
But some of the recipients – like Perry's – can be notoriously difficult to find or get in touch with based on the limited information released by the SBA. A search of the Secretary of State's corporate database yields no records for a company doing business under that name, which isn't to say it isn't incorporated as something else, so that pathway is inconclusive.
The usual avenues – like online phone directories and Facebook – turned out to be dead ends. Google? Also a bust.
Those quickly turned up a Perry's Gourmet Catering Service in Massachusetts – not Woonsocket – and a vendor with a similar name who hasn't posted on Facebook for over a year and who didn't return a direct message seeking information about its service area or operating headquarters.
The only place The Call was successful in identifying a company in the city with a name anything like Perry's Catering Inc. was an online directory of food vendors called findlocalcatering.com. It lists “Perry's Gourmet Service” as doing business at 148 Hamlet Ave., with a phone number of 762-2003.
The phone number is not a working number, according to an automated reply given to callers when they dial it.
The Massachusetts-based Perry's Gourmet Catering Service has a business address of 499B Washington St. in Dorchester Center. A man who returned a phone call to the number listed for the business declined to give his name, but he identified himself as a principal of the company. He said he has a brother who lives in Woonsocket but not at 148 Hamlet Ave. He said the company did not receive an RRF grant.
“Definitely not us,” he said. “I wish.”
As for 148 Hamlet Ave., the structure does not house a restaurant, a kitchen – or much of anything.
Built in 1908, the building used to be part of a mill complex which was mostly destroyed by fire over a decade ago. And much of what was left was later razed by the city, which acquired the property and used most of it for the new Woonsocket Middle School.
The only two structures left standing were 148 Hamlet, a onetime administration building for the mill complex, and a smaller “guard house” at 137 Hamlet Ave., now used as a substation for the Woonsocket Police Department.
The office building has lain vacant since the city acquired it, pondering a possible restoration.
Has it ever been leased to Perry's?
“No it has not,” affirmed Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt.
When The Call asked the SBA about irregularities that seem apparent in the available information about Perry's Catering, the agency wasn't much help.
“We don't talk about individual applicants,” said Elizabeth R. Moisuk, the regional communications director for the New England area. “That's just our policy.”
But Moisuk said if there is a suspicion that an applicant has received assistance in a manner that is not consistent with the eligibility rules of the program, those concerns may be directed to the SBA's inspector general. She said the agency and its federal partners are diligent in resolving such matters.
It's certainly possible – perhaps even likely – that some of the companies that received grants are simply difficult to find. Or that some clerical snafu is obfuscating the trail.
Another city-based recipient of an RRF grant is a case in point. The list released by the SBA includes a company called the MCA Group. The SOS corporate database indicates the company filed an annual report in 2021, giving its line of work as the operators of a billiard hall, with its principal place of business 255 Carrington Ave. The president of the company is identified as Catherine Abbott and the director, Marc Abbott.
The first curveball in the data is the address of the company – 255 Carrington Ave. It's a single-family home. And no billiard hall is licensed to do business there, according to City Clerk Christina Harmon.
“One hundred percent certain,” she says.
To make matters more confusing, the city's online assessors database says the property is owned by someone other than the Abbotts.
But the Abbotts say the database is wrong. Catherine Abbott, who answered the door of 255 Carrington Ave. when this reporter knocked on it earlier this week, says she has owned it for several years.
Abbott happily confirmed that she is the president of the MCA Group, a name that appears on a mailbox slot affixed to her house. The company represents a billiard hall, she said, but it has actually never operated. The hall is to be a new construction on Metro Center Boulevard in Warwick, and MCA received a payment from the RRF for losses resulting from the delayed start of the project, caused by COVID-19, she said.
“Because of COVID-19, we had a hard time opening,” said Abbott. “We're not open yet.”
Part of the American Rescue Plan Act, the Restaurant Relief Fund awarded grants to more than 440 businesses in Rhode Island, ranging from $1,594 to a Newport cafe to a high of over $2.9 million for another familiar name in the Blackstone Valley's restaurant industry – Wright's Farm Restaurant on Inman Road in Burrillville.
The company's operating model – built on hall-scale dining and special events – was uniquely incompatible with the edicts of social distancing that came to the fore during the height of the pandemic. As a result Wright's ceased operations altogether for a time.
Nationally, over 100,000 businesses were awarded more than $28.6 billion in RRF grants, according to Moisuk. The average grant was $283,000.
The agency acknowledges that some recipients may have received funds from the program fraudulently.
“The Office of the Inspector General and the agency's federal partners are working diligently to resolve fraud incidents,” she said via email. “The SBA encourages anyone suspecting fraud or misuse of relief programs to report it here: www.sba.gov/fraud.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo