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Resetting the Table: Independent Restaurants Organize to Save Themselves

Resetting the Table: Independent Restaurants Organize to Save Themselves
Written by Chris Chamberlain | Photo by Andrea Behrends

On Wednesday, April 29, a group of nationally-acclaimed chefs and restaurateurs held an online public announcement where they pleaded for a federal response to the COVID-19 crisis for independent restaurants in the form of a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund. The video conference call was arranged by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group that has organized resources and calls for action at their website www.saverestaurants.com. More than 2600 hospitality industry professionals and members of the media viewed the call which featured impassioned appeals from industry notables including José Andrés of World Central Kitchen and his national group of restaurants, television celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, chef Naomi Pomeroy of Beast PDX in Portland, former White House chef and Obama administration Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy chef Sam Kass and New Orleans chef/restaurateur Nina Compton. Rosa García was also included in the call to represent the thousands of small restaurant owners who are the lifeblood of the industry operating independent eateries such as García’s Mott Haven Bar & Grill in the South Bronx.

Andrés pointed out that restaurants are the backbones of so many communities, contributing more than $1 trillion annually to the nation’s economy. In the weeks since the pandemic closed restaurants across the nation, more than 51,000 members have joined the IRC, and 31,000+ have already signed a letter to congress requesting aid to give restaurants a fighting chance. Andrés believes that this is the moment in history to galvanize the community of independent restaurants in America and let the public know how important they are to the economy.

Zimmern pointed out that 60% of the American jobs lost since March of 2020 came from the food and beverage industry. He shared that industry members are pessimistic about their survival, citing a poll that said only one in five restaurant owners are confident that they will survive if the pandemic stretches on for four months or more.

Pomeroy shared that she had furloughed her entire staff, forcing them to join the eight million industry employees already out of work. She addressed the shortfalls of the Payroll Protection Plan and how it was not designed with the restaurant industry in mind because it required keeping workers on the payroll at the same time that government guidelines required closing restaurant dine-in operations or re-opening with drastically reduced seating capacities. Pomeroy reminded call attendees that hospitality owners return 90 cents of every dollar to their restaurants and communities in the form of staff salaries, taxes, rent and payments to suppliers, so the $150 stabilization fund would be a small price to pay to maintain a $1 trillion portion of the economy.

Nina Compton told the sad story of having to close her second New Orleans restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, on the establishment’s second anniversary on March 15, an occasion that should have been a time of celebration. She urged other independent restaurants and the dining public to visit the IRC’s website to sign on to their request for aid to help the industry make it through 2020, as she would “rather go down a dark road together than alone.”

Steven Satterfield Steven Satterfield | Photo by Heidi-Geldhauser

Across the South, chefs and restaurant owners have also been banding together to make their voices heard in the face of the pandemic. Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta has been instrumental in regional organization of what evolved into the IRC. The effort was initiated by wine importer Harry Root of South Carolina who had been instrumental in urging the government to abandon the idea of a high tariff on wine imports. Satterfield recalls, “The week we were wrapping up the tariff stuff, we got an email from Harry on March 16, and he started a Facebook group about COVID-19. We started talking about stimulus relief for restaurants and that we were going to see the greatest impact compared to the airlines who seem to get bailed out every time.”

The informal group began holding calls on Zoom twice a day and quickly became more structured, forming committees and planning social media campaigns. “The Cares Act was already happening at that point,” explains Satterfield. “We were looking at the 2.0 version and the potential amendments we wanted like an extension of the PPP timeframe. The first round of aid distribution was kind of a disaster. Of the 20 business sectors that were represented, restaurants and “accommodations” received less than 20 percent!”

Katy Kindred of North Carolina restaurants Kindred and Hello Sailor also received that initial email from Root and immediately jumped in to help out with organization. She explains, “Our mission was to mobilize and have independent restaurants have a voice in Washington. All the chefs and restaurateurs divided up by state with each state having at least one lead representative that disseminated the national message. Under the leadership of Ashley Christensen and Kait Goalen for the state of North Carolina, we further divided our state by region. Katie Button ran point in the Mountains, myself in the Piedmont, Cheetie Kumar in the Triangle and Vivian Howard in Eastern NC.”

Julia Sullivan Julia Sullivan | Photo by Andrea Behrends

In Tennessee, the organizing effort grew out of a late-night group text initiated by Nashville chef Bryan Weaver of Butcher & Bee and Redheaded Stranger. Not only were Weaver’s restaurants seeing the effects of the pandemic, but Nashville was still just starting to recover from the effects of a deadly tornado that had swept through several urban neighborhoods in early March. Henrietta Red’s Julia Sullivan immediately took a leadership position among the chefs of the group text. “After the tornado,” she explains, “many of us were already looking for ways to support ourselves, our businesses and our employees. Just as we were ready to reopen, new challenges were on the horizon. Bryan Lee Weaver initiated a text conversation amongst chefs, asking what can we do for ourselves and how we can help others? But also how can we help ourselves? None of us know how to navigate this, or the landscape as it changes, but having some solidarity and pooled resources has gone a long way in helping each other feel like there is a place to vent or turn.”

The initial group of Nashville chefs and restaurateurs on the group text quickly expanded into a statewide initiative. Sullivan describes the effort: “We formed TN Action for Hospitality, a coalition of chefs, as a way to unify our voice on the local and state level, primarily through social media. We’ve also used this as a fundraising vehicle for hospitality workers in partnership with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.” The group quickly achieved some real tangible results, as Sullivan explains. “We pressed the state early on items like tax abatement, cash stimulus and increased unemployment maximums. We’ve seen most of these changes occur on the federal level since then.  Our communications seemed to directly impact decisions loosening restrictions on alcohol sales and the ability to use our inventory as income.”

In their working group, Satterfield and Kindred continued to work on helping to craft the path through the pandemic for independent restaurants as part of the formation of the IRC. “It’s a very vulnerable and tenuous situation,” shares Satterfield. Then they found a new and valuable ally. “The National Restaurant Association was producing a similar bill, and it kind of thwarted our plans. But they were asking for more money that we could have imagined, so we figured if you can’t beat them, join them! It’s important that the IRC aligns with them.” As Zimmern explained on the video conference call, independent restaurants represent 11 million workers, but when you add in the national corporations that are also represented by the NRA, that number grows to more than 15 million. Expanding the number of affected workers in the total supply chain including farmers, fishermen, beekeepers, distribution and other food service reaches an astounding 50 million Americans.

Satterfield is still keeping an eye on the independents, though: “Now we’re basically trying to write in amendments to protect the most vulnerable, minority-owned restaurants, female-owned establishments and businesses with less than $1 million in gross revenue. These are so important to the fabric of America!”

This coalition of interests is critical to the potential success of the Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund. Satterfield believes, “We have lots of voices speaking with the same spirit. Anytime we are delivering a message, it’s intended to be a unifying message from the IRC. We’ve grown so quickly from 12 people to thousands, and everyone is going to need help!”

It’s amazing that all these chefs have been able to accomplish so much in an effort to unify the culinary community, while at the same time dealing with critical issues at their own restaurants. But if there’s anyone who is accomplished at multitasking in the face of pressure, it’s going to be chefs. If you want to help them out and ensure that your favorite restaurant will be around to offer the comfort and sustenance that they are desperate to provide when the pandemic passes, add your voice to those calling for the Independent Restaurant Stabilization Fund at the IRC website.

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