The group is comprised solely of chain restaurant CEOs and famous fine-dining chefs, at a time when small independent restaurants are at risk of vanishing.

By Maria Yagoda
April 17, 2020
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Credit: Caroline Purser / Getty Images

On April 14, the White House announced the roll-out of “economic revival industry groups,” meant to help plan the eventual reopening of the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. President Trump announced a group dedicated to restaurants, which makes sense—the hospitality industry is on life support. Yet the individuals selected to serve on the council—a handful of famous fine-dining chefs and chain restaurant CEOs, all of whom are men—is not only misguided, but deeply concerning for the survival of independent restaurants. It is also willfully ignorant of the demographics of restaurant workers in this country.

For one, smaller, independently run restaurants have been hit far harder by the pandemic than have corporate chains (for many reasons, a few of which were recently outlined by the newly formed Independent Restaurant Committee), so it's disappointing that there is no representation on behalf of the thousands of community restaurants that may never reopen. Trump's group consists of the male CEOs of Coca Cola, Darden Restaurants, Chick-fil-A, Subway, Papa John's, Wendy's, and more national chains, in addition to the famous and well-financed chefs Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Daniel Boulud.

Glaringly, the group is made up entirely of men and virtually devoid of diversity, at a time when small business owners in marginalized communities are disproportionately at risk. As Max Folkowitz wrote in Grub Street, the council will work "in tandem with an administration that has left hospitality workers teetering on destitution, scrounging over an exhausted pittance of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package while the steakhouse chain Ruth’s Chris hoovers up $20 million." It's pretty bad.

Thomas Keller, who tweeted that he was "honored" to serve on the committee, bristled at the widespread response that the council was insufficient, if not actively insulting, due to its glaring lack of women and business owners of color.

"I urge all haters and cynics to stop and join meaningful actions," Keller tweeted in response to criticisms. "Shout less, act more."

And yet, many of the people who are "shouting" are advocating for meaningful grassroots action, rather than collaborating with an administration that is openly hostile to the restaurant industry's most vulnerable workers. In a recent letter to Congress, the Independent Restaurant Committee noted the unique challenges facing small restaurant businesses that the stimulus package failed to meaningfully address. "Independent restaurants have a business model that is unique from the vast majority of small businesses," the letter reads. "Restaurants are cash flow businesses with extremely small margins and these closures have put a hard stop to incoming revenue. Meanwhile, expenses such as payroll, rent, and utilities continue to upend the industry. There is no more severely distressed, yet systemically critical sector in our economy."

The casting of this committee, which is stacked with CEOs of major corporations, seems to signify an unwillingness to address the shortcomings of the CARES Act, which doesn't account for the moment's distinct devastation of independent restaurants, particularly those owned by people who have historically had less access to capital and support.

"The parameters that are put in place to even attain some of these grants or loans—they favor the people that have lots of support," said chef Kwame Onwuachi in a recent episode of our Communal Table podcast. "If you have all of your taxes in line and you're current on pretty much everything, then you're eligible for all of this. I'm not saying that minorities and women and people of color aren't current on all of that. But I just feel that it's going to be harder for the smaller family-run places to provide all of that and be eligible for the whole package."

Restaurants, and the communities that rely on them, deserve better.