Save local restaurants: Help lobby Congress for stabilization fund

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This morning, the Independent Restaurant Coalition sent a letter to Congress urging it to create a $120 billion restaurant stabilization fund, to save our struggling indie restaurant industry. Then at 11am (5am Hawai‘i time!) IRC leaders Naomi Pomeroy (Beast, Portland, pictured above), José Andrés (World Central Kitchen, Washington, DC), Andrew Zimmern (What’s Eating America) and Sam Kass (political advisor and former White House chef), along with struggling chef Nina Compton (Compère Lapin, New Orleans) and Rosa Garcia (Mott Haven Bar & Grill, the Bronx), held a Zoom Town Hall to talk about the fund and why it is so critical to keeping a $1 trillion industry alive.

The speakers went over the crazytown—but very real—numbers the country’s independent restaurant industry faces. Of our more than 500,000 indie restaurants, one out of 10 of them are closed. And the ones that are open are operating at super low levels—your favorite Honolulu restaurants may be cheerily handing you takeout (and bravo to those who are ordering takeout)—but many are in crisis mode. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, if the Covid-19 crisis lasts more than four months, only 30 percent of our restaurants have a chance of surviving. THIRTY PERCENT. Imagine O‘ahu with more than half of its restaurants gone, from your favorite neighborhood chop suey house to the place you go for special occasions.

IRC, which was founded just six weeks ago by industry heavy hitters, surveyed its members, and 50 percent of respondents said they had already taken on $50,000 in debt as a result of coronavirus distancing measures. So that means even if a restaurant has received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan (and many have not), that money won’t even come close to seeing it through to reopening. While restaurants remain closed or try to staunch the bleeding through takeout, “hard costs remain the same,” said Zimmern. “We aren’t in this business for the money. We got into it because when we were young we saw the magic that happened when people sat down and shared food.”

Pomeroy said she still needed to pay outstanding bills from before Beast had to shut down. “We need grant, not loan. A lot of us were already in debt when this happeed,” added Garcia, who applied for a PPP loan during the first round, was denied, then applied again in the second round with new paperwork. She is still waiting to hear the result.

“We are fighting for the DNA of our restaurants,” said Andrés. “Behind every dish is the story of a farmer, of a fisherman. That is why we are asking for a PPP that really works.”

IRC’s proposed fund cannot be used to help publicly traded companies or large chains (so no Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris fiasco), and will prioritize women and minority owners and operators.

Takeout, gift certificates—these are all temporary solutions, and bring in only 10 percent of restaurants’ normal revenue, said Pomeroy. “We need longterm help. We have to do a lot of work to reopen—pay old invoices, health care, train people. We have to come up with a new plan. We will look different after this. At Beast, we have 26 seats total at communal tables in a tiny open space. No one will want to sit at a communal table now, so I have to come up with different plan.”

It is in the interest of the government to bail out independent restaurants just as they have airplane and auto makers. Indie restaurants employ 11 million people. They are the number one employer of single mothers, and of people returning to the work force following incarceration, noted Zimmern.

“We are also paying some of the highest trust taxes in the country. Not only is this about saving jobs, but the amount of sales tax and other trust taxes restaurants pay is what keeps all those state and city programs alive,” he said. “The macro economy of independent restaurants is necessary. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on their cultural importance.”

Kass was honest and said making the proposal a reality won’t be easy, but it is possible. Yelling to be heard does make a difference. It led to Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris returning their millions to the government.

“Lobbying works,” he said. “To make it through, we have to raise our voices. The big fight is starting right now. Stay in touch through social media. The more we can stay on message as s community, the more effective we can be.”

The $120 billion isn’t a random amount. Based on restaurant numbers and time, IRC calculated that figure as what will fulfill the nations’ indie restaurants’ basic needs.

Whether you are in the restaurant business, are part of a restaurant-adjacent business such as farming or wine sales, are the Hawaii Restaurant Association, or simply love to eat you can help lobby for this crucial lifeline. IRC has an online form you can fill in that will go straight to your representatives. Fill it out now.

Coming soon to their website is a toolkit to help you be a restaurant activist.

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