The Independent Restaurant Coalition turned tears into cheers, urging owners to share their angst and use that emotion to lobby Congress.
On July 1, about 100 members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a fledgling group of chefs and restaurateurs from around the country, ended a video conference call by grieving for Blackbird, a critically acclaimed restaurant in Chicago.
Coming as coronavirus cases spiked across the country, and on the heels of a spring that brought mass layoffs and paralyzing uncertainty in the business, the permanent closing of a landmark restaurant in the nation’s third-largest city was a bleak turn of events.
Sam Kass, a former White House chef and policy adviser to President Barack Obama, sobbed as he expressed his despair over the closing in his hometown. “If Blackbird can be taken out by this, anything can,” he said.
The chef Nina Compton remembers watching what many people called the Blackbird “funeral” from the dining room of Bywater American Bistro, one of the two New Orleans restaurants where she is an owner. The outpouring of emotion, she said, reinforced the urgency of the coalition’s mission — to lobby for legislation specifically to help independent restaurants and bars survive the pandemic. “People were saying, We can’t continue to let this happen,” she said.
Nine months later, the coalition can claim a large share of the credit for creating the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion grant program for small restaurants, bars and restaurant groups intended to stem the tide of closings that, according to the National Restaurant Association, has permanently shuttered more than 110,000 restaurants and bars in the last year.
The fund is part of the $1.9 trillion stimulus package known as the American Rescue Plan. It is modeled on the Restaurants Act, a bill introduced in Congress last spring based on recommendations made by the coalition. Speaking of the fund during a news conference this month, Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said, “Without the I.R.C., I don’t know if it would have gotten done.”
The fund’s $28.6 billion is a small fraction of the $120 billion the group contends is necessary to stabilize independent restaurants. But its creation signals a notable achievement: Owners of smaller restaurants, most of them unschooled in or uncomfortable with legislative politics, came together to make a persuasive case for their businesses and workers.
The effort they organized may give independent restaurants some lasting leverage. Its leaders have vowed to fight for more relief, if necessary, as has Mr. Schumer.
And the coalition’s unusual process — encouraging members to vent and channel powerful emotions, as they did in that early meeting — lifted members up through struggles unlike anything most had ever experienced.
“Given the year we just had, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here today without the people on those calls,” said Robert St. John, a member of the coalition’s leadership committee who operates five restaurants and one bar in Hattiesburg, Miss. In a tearful meeting last summer, he revealed he was permanently closing Purple Parrot, his first restaurant, opened in 1987.
For now, the revitalization money, which the Small Business Administration should start distributing by the end of April, is a much-needed piece of good news for a reeling industry.
“Owners are closing their restaurants, and they’ve been taking on debt,” Mr. St. John said. “This help can’t come soon enough.”
The coalition began a year ago last week, when 18 owners of small food businesses met virtually to share ideas for surviving lockdowns. Members continued to meet in some form nearly every day, growing to about 200 active participants who engage with members of Congress and other elected officials. Leaders say 100,000 supporters have registered on the coalition’s website.
While plenty of independent restaurateurs belong to the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s primary voice in Washington, many were reluctant to join in political action until faced with the prospect of their own demise.
Lawmakers say the National Restaurant Association’s influence helped create support in Congress for the amendment to include restaurant relief in the stimulus package. But early in the pandemic, many owners of small restaurants concluded that the influence of corporate chains in the association made it necessary to create an advocacy group focused more specifically on their own interests.
Sean Kennedy, the association’s executive vice president for public affairs, said in a statement that his group “has worked tirelessly for the restaurant industry over the last 12 months — especially the independents that are the cornerstone of every community across the country.” He added that the association’s board is chaired by an independent operator.
On Monday, the National Restaurant Association announced the hiring of a new executive to improve communication with all members, including small independents.
Still, Caroline Styne, an owner of four restaurants in Los Angeles, including A.O.C., said that “the impetus behind the I.R.C. is that no one is going to take care of us if we don’t take care of ourselves.” She and her business partner, the chef Suzanne Goin, said they had been reluctant to get involved in politics, for fear of alienating potential customers or misrepresenting the views of their staff.
“But there are times you can’t keep your mouth shut,” Ms. Styne said. “This was one of those times.”
Political activism is more common in the restaurant business than it used to be, particularly since the #MeToo movement took hold in 2017. Amanda Cohen, the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, in New York City, was publicly condemning sexual harassment, discrimination and pay inequities in restaurants well before 2020. She said the coalition’s formation provided an opportunity for chefs and independent restaurateurs to exert influence by uniting around shared values.
“We were a bunch of businesses that did the same thing, but we didn’t really find a unifying voice” before the pandemic, Ms. Cohen said. “The reality is that the way to make change is like this, through policy.”
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund is meant to compensate restaurant and bar owners for revenue lost during shutdowns, and the money is reserved for businesses with 20 or fewer locations. Grants of up to $5 million for single restaurants, and up to $10 million for restaurant groups, will be made through the Small Business Administration.
Coalition members are quick to point out provisions intended to benefit marginalized communities. During the first 21 days grants are issued, the Small Business Administration will prioritize applications from businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans. Some $5 billion is set aside for businesses — including food trucks, food stalls and catering businesses — whose gross receipts in 2019 were less than $500,000.
John Schumacher is an owner of Harold’s Cabin, a neighborhood restaurant in Charleston, S.C., that has been closed since last spring. He said that from the beginning, the coalition set out to help restaurants that don’t have the resources of the group’s members.
“A lot of them don’t know what the I.R.C. is, or what this legislation is,” Mr. Schumacher said. “Those are the ones we’re fighting for the most.”
It was an uphill battle for most of the year. The coalition’s failure to get help for restaurants into the coronavirus relief package that President Donald Trump signed in December was particularly dispiriting. A popular video posted to social media that month, by a California restaurateur outraged over unequal enforcement of Covid restrictions in Los Angeles County, became emblematic of the frustration of coalition members.
“We definitely all had our anger moment,” Ms. Goin said.
Mr. Kass, the former presidential adviser, said coalition members restored morale by reminding one another of the delivery drivers, farmers and other food professionals who counted on them. “Washington does not like to give out industry-specific resources,” he said. “Everyone else gets really upset.”
The coalition’s political strategy was to leverage its members’ public profiles and community connections to compensate for what they lacked in political clout. News-media interviews with group leaders, including the chefs Tom Colicchio, Kwame Onwuachi and Andrew Zimmern, highlighted the economic impact of independent restaurants and bars, which, according to research commissioned by the coalition, employ 11 million people and support another five million jobs in related businesses.
“They are such a vital part of our economy, not only with the restaurant jobs, but the supply chain,” said Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, an early champion of the Restaurants Act. “I don’t think it dawned on people that the reach extends as far as it does.”
Mr. St. John’s relationship with Mr. Wicker, a regular at his restaurants, was crucial in winning early support for the coalition’s cause among Senate Republicans. In the end, no Republican in either house voted for the larger stimulus bill. But the bipartisan support for independent restaurants positions the coalition to become an influential voice in Washington.
Representative Earl Blumenauer, Democrat of Oregon, said the coalition’s priority is now ensuring that the fund functions as intended. He cited the Paycheck Protection Program, which was ill-suited to the needs of many small restaurateurs, as a cautionary tale.
“We don’t want a situation where people with more lawyers and accountants and connections get in there and soak up all the money,” said Mr. Blumenauer, who introduced the Restaurants Act in the House last year. “That was part of the problem with the P.P.P.”
Bobby Stuckey, an owner of Frasca Food & Wine, in Boulder, Colo., used skills developed in high-end restaurant dining rooms to become one of the coalition’s most effective influencers. He discovered he had a powerful network of contacts dating back to his days as a sommelier at the Little Nell, in Aspen, and the French Laundry, in Napa Valley.
“I could call someone who I met at the Little Nell 25 years ago, who is from Miami, and be like, ‘You don’t know anyone who knows Marco Rubio, do you?’” Mr. Stuckey said. “If you’re lucky enough to be old in this industry, you’ve talked to a lot of guests.”
“They were moved to do something because our industry relies on people of color,” said Mr. Onwuachi, who in July left Kith and Kin, the renowned Afro-Caribbean restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I had to remind them they’re already doing the right thing. They’re fighting for this industry. Racism didn’t start with the killing of George Floyd.”
Those conversations led to a panel of Black chefs, including Mashama Bailey of Savannah, Ga., and Edouardo Jordan of Seattle, discussing race relations in the United States, in and out of the kitchen.
Members said those sensitive conversations were successful because the group had already created an environment where members felt comfortable talking openly about sorrow and depression. Erika Polmar, a Portland food activist who became the coalition’s executive director in June, said meetings regularly functioned as an emotional outlet and source of support.
“There is just so much loss,” she said. “We can’t just gloss over what’s happened.”
Noting the complexity of Zoom meetings, which were not going to quickly produce a reason to celebrate, Will Guidara, a coalition founder, suggested ending each call with remarks from one member, modeled on the pre-meal meetings held in many restaurants just before the beginning of service.
“Pre-meal is the part of the day when a restaurant stops being a collection of individuals and starts to become a team,” said Mr. Guidara, a former owner of Eleven Madison Park, in Manhattan. “I hoped that it would have a similar impact.”
What came to be called the “post-shift” or “send-off” speech in coalition meetings helped set a tone that Elliot Nelson, a restaurateur in Tulsa, Okla., said “wasn’t exactly group therapy, but it was close.”
The most powerful post-shifts, like the one devoted to Blackbird, in Chicago, laid bare the pain of an unbearable year. Donnie Madia opened the restaurant with a group of friends, including the chef Paul Kahan, in 1997. It went on to become the flagship of One Off Hospitality, an influential restaurant group.
“For your first restaurant, you work so hard, it’s very difficult on the mind,” Mr. Madia said of Blackbird’s closing. The post-shift, he said, “gave me the solace to release and to let go, so I could fight for what we have left.”
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