Why Restaurants Got Political

Camilla Marcus, chef-owner of west~bourne in NYC and one of the founders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, on why restaurants came together as a political force for the first time in our country’s history.

1,000 Chefs Go To Washington
Photo: Abbey Lossing

The weekend of March 15, the restaurant industry as we know it fell off a cliff.

Almost overnight, restaurants across the country closed their doors. Millions of hospitality teams were laid off, and workers found themselves without a way to earn a living at home or promises of jobs to return to. In this unprecedented crisis, it became clear that lawmakers did not realize what was really at stake: The risk of structural unemployment, which could trigger a depression, and the loss of independent restaurants that are core to our cultural fabric. Case in point: While two-thirds of restaurants are owned independently, only large chains, many of which have access to public markets for capital, were invited to Washington to participate in drafting the third relief bill negotiations. Airlines had also already negotiated their own dedicated sections in what would become the CARES Act, despite the fact that they employ far less people than the 11 million in the restaurant industry, the second-largest private employer in the country. It was a tragic irony: We are an intensely regulated industry, but the government was not providing us with a seat at the table.

Read more: Good Eggs: The People Helping Restaurants the Most During COVID-19

On March 18, Adam Saper, a managing partner at Eataly, Sean Feeney, co-owner of Lilia and Misi, Dana Cowin, an editor and the founder of the podcast Speaking Broadly, and I sent out a call to arms to 30 New York owners of restaurants, from King to FIELDTRIP, to organize a virtual meeting. Every single person was on board, and we spent an hour on the phone drafting an eight-point plan, which we posted to change.org the next morning. It was that quick and that simple: Regardless of differences in our backgrounds and businesses, we were unified in that we needed to do something to wake the government up. We formed Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants (ROAR), a coalition focused on aid and advocacy for our industry and our people in New York since we stood to be hit the hardest in the nation by COVID-19 coupled with intense density and high cost of living. We successfully lobbied Governor Cuomo’s office for enhanced unemployment benefits for our teams, and we have raised over $1 million in a matter of weeks in partnership with Robin Hood for NYC restaurant workers to receive direct cash assistance. Our change.org petition now has over 160,000 signatures outlining relief measures at the state level, and over 350 restaurant owners have joined our coalition.

The next day, I got a call from chef and activist Tom Colicchio, who invited me to be part of the founding membership of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), which is focused on advocating for restaurants like mine at the national level. The IRC hired a prominent lobbyist, Thorn Run Partners, and hit the ground running to see what impact we could have on the CARES Act before it was signed into law. As late entrants to the negotiations, we fought hard for what we could. In those weeks before the CARES Act was signed into law about 50 restaurant owners from around the country joined twice daily video conferences, seven days a week. We continue to discuss everything from community support to policy changes. It’s a round-the-clock effort to increase awareness of both the current situation restaurants are facing and the terrifying reality we might come back to if we are unable to reopen and stay open through this pandemic.

As a collective, our first goal was to provide relief for our teams, and we feel proud to have effectively secured enhanced unemployment benefits at both the federal and state level. We have galvanized as individual businesses and together to raise a tremendous amount for direct cash relief for our team members who cannot work from home. Now, the looming question is whether we can reopen sustainably, and what the industry will look like on the other side.

We are currently in the middle of the tunnel with no clear emerging point in sight. I have had friends die from the virus, and I have friends who have already closed their operations permanently. The lights are flickering across most of our industry, and we are still writhing through a health crisis. The PPP loans, while recently improved, still do not align to the longer-term timing and extensive burden of costs required for restaurant recovery. Unlike other industries, we can’t just turn the lights back on and instantly operate as we did before.

Our community is simultaneously reckoning with another pandemic: The systemic racial injustice that has plagued our nation since its inception and from which our industry is not exempt. It is a critical moment in which our industry's leadership will be essential in collective efforts to dismantle racist practices and behaviors, in our businesses and beyond. The events of the past few months have changed the world, and that will require a full restart and reconception of our businesses. For the next twelve months, or until antibody testing and/or a vaccine are proliferated, guests will be afraid to dine out in proximity and convene in groups together, which is the very core of why restaurants exist and flourish. It’s hard to fathom how we can sustain a 50% or more drop in business required by social distancing for this length of time. So, while continuing to address the current devastation, we are beginning to look ahead cautiously as we work with the federal and state government to craft a restructuring plan that would enable our businesses to reopen sustainably and solvently so that we can re-employ as many people as possible. This work includes advocating for structural changes like new hiring strategies, enhanced investment in development, and new models for compensation to make this industry an equitable one for our Black, Indigenous and POC colleagues.

Every week feels like years, and days of the week don’t have as much significance as they once did. Through the reckoning, though, one thing is clear: We as an industry must rise to the occasion, unified. We are working harder than ever before to preserve the independent restaurants that anchor our communities, as well as the teams that bring them to life. For the first time we feel seen by the public and our lawmakers for what we are: The heart of the nation.

Camilla Marcus is the chef-owner of west~bourne in NYC, as well as one of the founders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

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