With Restaurants in Crisis, the James Beard Foundation Has a New Mission

Inside their efforts to help independent restaurants survive, rebuild, and thrive.

James Beard Foundation Open For Good
Photo: James Beard Foundation

When applications for a $15,000 grant from the James Beard Foundation opened to restaurants on March 30, 4,000 businesses applied in the first 90 minutes. The grant was closed to applications shortly after. Today, the foundation announced it has raised $4.7 million in emergency relief, and already disbursed $4 million to over 300 recipients in 40 states.

This emergency funding was the first phase of a new, long-term campaign called Open For Good. The campaign has three phases: stabilize, rebuild, and thrive, and according to James Beard Foundation CEO Clare Reichenbach, the foundation is committing its full staff and program to the initiative for at least the next year.

Read more: These Are the 2020 James Beard Award Restaurant and Chef Semifinalists

“As we’ve seen through this crisis the fragility of this industry has been so exposed, and it’s systemic, and we know that fixing this is going to be multi-faceted,” she said.

Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, chef-owners of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club in Chicago, received one of the $15,000 grants in April. Cikowski said they applied within the ten minutes of applications being open in March, and received word of their success and the money about a month later.

“We didn't know how much the grants were going to be when we applied for them. Getting $500 or $1,000—every bit helps. But having a $15,000 grant makes a huge impact on any business. We’re using ours to help pay some of our employee benefits while they’re furloughed and making changes to our space. It’s a significant amount of money to be given with no terms, no repayment.” Cikowski and Kulp furloughed nearly all of their 48 employees.

They were approved for federal aid under the Paycheck Protection Program for both businesses, though ultimately decided to decline a PPP loan for Honey Butter Fried Chicken. “We were closed, and it seemed abundantly clear to me, after discussing it with our banker, reading every page, and becoming a true expert on the topic, that we were not even close to being able to meet the guidelines for forgiveness, nor were we even in the ballpark of what the spirit of the guidelines were,” Kulp said.

Reichenbach said that the majority of recipients, like Cikowski and Kulp, run restaurants with fewer than 50 employees.

“As we think about PPP and the fact that these small operators are struggling to access that relief, we feel good that our relief fund is really getting into the hands of those small neighborhood organizations that really need this shot in the arm,” Reichenbach said.

Still, she said she knows that a relatively small grant alone won’t save a business that has had to lay off or furlough workers as they wait for relief and reopening. The James Beard Foundation itself isn’t immune to these challenges, either, and had to furlough a portion of its 60 employees, including those who worked at the James Beard House, a restaurant space in Manhattan. Reichenbach declined to share the exact number of affected employees, but said that every department of the foundation had been impacted. “As we offer resources and guidance around this, we’re also coming from a place of great empathy because we’ll be living and breathing this unfurling ourselves,” she said.

Though one phase of emergency relief has ended, the foundation continues to collect data to support real-time relief for the industry. It has put out a series of “snap surveys,” each open for a few days to assess the impact of closures, what businesses need now, and thoughts around reopening. Each has over a thousand responses, and together these surveys have been “empirical substance to the claim for what is needed,” said Reichenbach. To complement this, the foundation has built a system of information and guidance, with daily webinars and weekly regional outreach to address operational practicalities like business pivots, insurance claims, and access to federal loan funds.

Most importantly, she said, the foundation is working to distribute all of this information with a strong singular voice and message to restaurants and consumers. As restaurants begin to think about reopening under various levels of state and local guidance, safety is of paramount importance. “This is an industry that is so accessible and relatable. This will be a great signal of where society is at in terms of the health and shape of restaurants reopening,” she said.

The foundation partnered with The Aspen Institute on a forthcoming playbook for reopening, containing information and best practices for safety, operations, benefits and livable wages for employees, and sustainable supply chains and practices. It’s encouraging the dining public to continue supporting local businesses, and ongoing consumer education will be a huge part of its efforts.

“I think people are more receptive to this messaging because they can see their beloved restaurants in distress and duress right now. There’s this greater understanding of the value of the role of restaurants and restaurant workers in our society,” she said. “These are the essential workers who are taking the risk to cook, to feed, to nourish, to deliver.”

In its final phase, the Open For Good campaign will help reopened restaurants thrive in a new reality. The foundation will continue to fundraise to support reopening efforts. “Once we’re through this and we have a new complexion to the restaurant industry, it’s using all our levers to elevate and champion those who are leaders in the field through awards, through events, through our platforms, and doing everything we can to reinforce the good.”

There are still a lot of questions around what restaurants might look like, in both the near and long-term future, but Reichenbach is focused on the opportunity to support change for good. “I think we want the industry to come back looking different in some respects. This crisis has underscored the elements that are broken, and this is the opportunity to fix them,” she said.

“The thing about this community, this is such a resilient, smart, scrappy, problem-solving group of doers. We haven't cracked the code on this yet, but I think they will rise to the challenge to figure it out.”

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