"We’re not looking for a bailout—we’re looking to get back to work when we can get back to work," Tom Colicchio said.

By Maria Yagoda
April 06, 2020
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Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Ramona Rosales; Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

After President Trump signed the 2 million dollar CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act into law at the end of March, many chefs and hospitality workers grew even more concerned for the fate of independent restaurants, feeling that the stimulus bill did not adequately address the unique needs of small businesses. So on April 6, the newly formed Independent Restaurant Coalition, or IRC, sent a letter to Congress demanding a bigger, more comprehensive federal response to the operations suffering the most during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The plan so far is really insufficient to restaurants needs," said Tom Colicchio in a press conference, where he was joined by chefs Kwame Onwuachi and Naomi Pomeroy, who are also founding members. "We need additional funding. We’re not looking for a bailout—we’re looking to get back to work when we can get back to work. We were forced to shut down."

The letter sent to Congress, which is backed by nearly 3,500 chefs and restaurateurs, claims that the CARES Act offers too short a window for the Paycheck Protection Program, and provides no path to accessing capital to reopen, in addition to a lack of tax rebates to rehire furloughed staff. "There is no more severely distressed, yet systemically critical sector in our economy," the letter states, insisting that the nearly 500,000 independent restaurants across the country—which account for an estimated $1 trillion of the economy—deserve a path to survival.

The letter also cites a sobering statistic from the U.S. Dept. of Labor: two-thirds of the millions of jobs lost in March came from the hospitality industry.

"We just lost several months of revenue, and will need to purchase new supplies, retrain a new staff, and pay any outstanding supplier bills and our rent," Onwuachi said in a statement. "The CARES Act just isn’t enough to ensure we’re able to serve our communities and build our local economies.” Indeed, the letter emphasizes the need to address the fate of restaurants after the pandemic dies down; many will not be able to pay bills or staff after months and months of loss.

The systemic problems facing independent restaurants extend beyond the act, and underline the need for extra protections for restaurant workers. Chef Pomeroy, of Beast in Portland, OR, said that she furloughed her entire 30-person staff on March 15, out of concern for the safety of the community, and they all applied for unemployment on March 16. No one has received a check yet. "I am worried about my team," she said.

During the press conference, Onwuachi recalled holding back tears when he had to lay off his entire staff at Kith/Kin in Washington, D.C., and noted the unique obstacles facing communities of color. "I didn’t know how they were going to be able to pay their bills and take care of their children, and I didn’t know when they would be coming back to work," he said. "As a Black operator and minority owner, we’re especially vulnerable during this crisis ... There’s little to no security in the face of an emergency like this. We’re calling on Congress to take action and ensure restaurants can survive this."

According to Colicchio, the IRC was formed in a matter of days as chefs began organizing regionally to address the federal government. "We very quickly found there were restaurants down South working on the same issues, one in the Chicago area, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco," he said. "What we did is pull in leaders from each of those coalitions."

For the full letter, visit saverestaurants.org.