San Diego County restaurant owners awarded $5,000 grants to invest in kitchens, technology and employees

The California Restaurant Foundation awarded 18 San Diego County food businesses $5,000 grants to invest in long-term growth, which was hobbled by COVID-19 over the past few years.

The food industry trade group started the Restaurants Care Resilience Fund in 2020 to help independent restaurant owners survive the pandemic.

In its third year, this round of awards is aimed at upgrading kitchen equipment, investing in technology and employee retention as restaurants continue to deal with inflation, increasing labor costs and pandemic hardships.


Giacomo Pizzigoni, co-owner of Ambrogio by Acquerello in La Jolla said he is extremely grateful to receive one of the $5,000 grants as it is 10 times more difficult to run a restaurant these days.

“It’s amazing because right now, this is probably the most challenging time since I opened my first restaurant seven years ago and it’s great to have this type of support,” he said.

He moved from Italy to San Diego for graduate school and later opened his first restaurant, Ambrogio15 Pacific Beach. Pizzigoni said this is the first time his new business, which opened in November, has gotten financial assistance like this grant.

Ambrogio by Acquerello offers an eight-course tasting menu starting at $159, which is a common format in French fine dining, but a newer concept for Italian cuisine in San Diego. On top of the risk of trying a new kind of food concept, Pizzigoni said “it’s becoming really expensive for us to run a restaurant.”

“The biggest challenge has been the insane inflation that we’re facing,” he said. “That changed all the dynamics because the labor costs skyrocketed. Any type of supply from raw material to napkins to boxes to glassware, doubled (or) tripled the price and in San Diego in particular.”

The business currently operates with less than 10 people so the grant money will help them hire qualified employees with culinary degrees. Additionally, Pizzigoni has spent no money on marketing so the funds will also help him invest in promotion for the business as well as some much-needed kitchen improvements, like a salamander grill.

“We just opened without doing any construction or working there,” he said of the old restaurant space they moved into. “So we’ve always tried to catch up and … made a little bit of profit, put some tiles on the floor. Made a little bit of profit, fix the gas line. Made a little bit of profit, fix the boiler and it’s been like that nonstop. So always trying to kind of add a little bit to get to where we were and always feeling like we were underwater.”

Ambrogio by Acquerello co-founders Giacomo Pizzigoni, left, Andrea Burrone, Silvio Salmoiraghi and Paolo Tucci at the new restaurant in La Jolla.

(Courtesy of Bhadri Kubendran)

He noted that the economy is also squeezing consumers and changing their dining habits. San Diego had 8 to 9 percent fewer seated diners in March and April 2023 over a year earlier, according to Open Table.

Pizzigoni said people like him in the restaurant industry are driven by a passion for food and hospitality. But as people dine out less and profit margins tighten, it’s been challenging, so this $5,000 grant is a welcome boost.

“We received a record-breaking number of applications this year — 25 percent more than last year — so it’s apparent that there’s an immense need to support independent and locally owned restaurants throughout the state,” said Alycia Harshfield, executive director of the California Restaurant Foundation.

The local grant recipients cover the county from a Cuban restaurant in Chula Vista to a saloon with live music in Santa Ysabel and a banana-themed coffee shop in Oceanside.

Harshfield said that this year’s grant program is focused on helping restaurants move from responding to the pandemic to building a resilient business.

The foundation’s Resilience Fund is backed by contributions from California utility companies — San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Gas and Pacific Gas & Electric. This year’s fund offers the largest grants in the program’s existence and totals $2.1 million.

This grant cycle, 184 independent restaurants across the state received awards and there will be another opportunity to apply for money this fall. Harshfield said that there will be $5,000 grants allocated for 18 San Diego County businesses later this year.

She said that the next grant cycle will be open to more applicants and consider the restaurant owners who applied this time but were not selected, adding that they do not need to apply again.

California-based restaurant owners with no more than five locations and less than $3 million in annual revenue (combined across all locations) are eligible to apply.

For a full list of grant recipients in San Diego County and across California, visit