Organizing for Survival: The Independent Restaurant Coalition

Organizing for Survival: The Independent Restaurant Coalition

Independent Restaurant Coalition co-founders Kwame Onwuachi and Naomi Pomeroy describe efforts for government aid.

The early days of March 2020 will go down in history for the hospitality industry. Those first few weeks of the month were fraught with questions, confusing and conflicting reports, and rumors. The lack of continuity from government authorities and regulatory agencies left chefs, restaurateurs, and their teams in a state of chaos, confronted with making financial and ethical decisions based on limited information. 

Beyond the four walls of the restaurants, the confusion extended to the delicate solar system of businesses that revolve around supplying restaurants—from linen companies to hospitality public relations firms to purveyors. By March 15, when many state stay-at-home orders were issued, it was obvious a crippling blow was coming to the industry, and in turn, the national economy. 

But the industry’s leaders didn’t remain idle for long. As Noami Pomeroy, chef and owner of Beast in Portland, Oregon, said when we sat down to hear her story, “If you take millions of workers who are used to working—frankly, twelve to sixteen hours a day—and now they don’t have work, hello? We are going to be noisy. Very noisy.” So in response to the challenges resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak, a supergroup of chefs including José Andrés, Nina Compton, Andrew Carmellini, Ashley Christensen, Tom Colicchio, Suzanne Goin, Will Guidara, Sam Kass, Kwame Onwuachi, Amanda Cohen, Nancy Silverton, Andrew Zimmern—just to name just a few—launched the Independent Restaurant Coalition. 

Life & Thyme founder Antonio Diaz and I recently had a chance to speak with Pomeroy and fellow IRC co-founder, Kwame Onwuachi, during a Zoom session. Over the course of our conversation, we discussed the initiative and its mission, its immediate and long-term goals, why the restaurant industry has arrived at this critical juncture, how the government needs to react—and what we as a nation and a culture stand to lose if they do not. 

The following is an edited excerpt of our discussion.

What was the origin of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and how did you get involved?

Naomi Pomeroy We had a meeting on March 13, which I thought was just going to be a few of us getting together. It ended up being a relatively large gathering. The concerns were all the same. By the 17, we were all on a big call together forming this coalition.

Kwame Onwuachi It was like we were about to start the Avengers. You want to be part of this? I was like, “Yeah, just sign me up.”

Naomi Pomeroy [With IRC], we have the chance to let people know this is what’s on the line. And that we want to keep the diversity of our restaurant community alive, and that it’s going to take some serious CPR. We’re working and saying, within the agenda of a national restaurant scene, “Where’s our seat at the table?” Because there was a meeting at the White House with a lot of leaders in the industry that didn’t include any independent restaurants.

What defines us as the Independent Restaurant Coalition isn’t about the style of food we’re doing or the size of our business—there are small places and large places. But there’s an ethos to running an independent restaurant that is really about paying our workers a living wage, and utilizing products that give value back to the community. There are connections that happen through what we do. There’s a soul that speaks to all of us, and that includes people of all different shapes and sizes, ethnicities, and food styles.

Kwame Onwuachi The restaurant industry is America. It represents our nation. And that’s why we need to take it seriously, and that’s why the IRC was formed. The IRC was formed to be that voice for all the constituents. To be that voice for the people who can’t speak up, so they know we have their back, they’re thought of, and that we have an industry when this is all said and done.

Can you talk about what the restaurant industry contributes to the U.S. economy?

Kwame Onwuachi The industry generates a trillion dollars in revenue per year, and we comprise four percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. We employ over eleven million workers across the nation, and that’s just directly inside of the restaurant. That’s not even talking about the linen companies, or the printers (people who print menus); they’re not selling to anyone right now. I would easily triple that number if you want to think about the amount of people we directly employ and provide for.

This isn’t a restaurant industry problem; this is a national problem. We are where people go to live. Whether we’re feeling bad or we’re feeling good, you go to a restaurant.

Naomi Pomeroy We employ all different people from all different walks of life. There are people who might just have gotten out of prison working for us, and there might be people who are lifetime professional servers and chefs who have gone to school. This isn’t just a trade job for everybody. I think it’s important to talk about the diversity of jobs that we create as well as the connection we have to purveyors. Certain purveyors who have helped us along the way who we’ve also helped support. People who have quit jobs they’re unsatisfied with in the tech world to become goat cheese farmers and artisan bread bakers.

What are the IRC’s efforts in reaching out to Congress? And what does that work look like in trying to fix the Paycheck Protection Plan loan program?

Kwame Onwuachi We’ve put together an actual letter with all our official asks. We also have a lobbying company we work with that can get us directly in front of the people we need to. That’s another reason we started this coalition—to use our collective connections within the political realm in order to get in front of the people who actually make these decisions.

We have victories that are within the CARES Act of increasing the loan repayments for a couple more weeks, and we’ve increased the unemployment payment. But the biggest win is the unification of the restaurant industry nationwide, and how we came together so quickly and reacted, and got in front of the most powerful people to let them know we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and we won’t be silenced.

Naomi Pomeroy What we’re really pushing for is that we need to get the Paycheck Protection Plan fixed so it applies to restaurants. Right now, it does absolutely nothing for us. If we get a loan right now and we need to use it within eight weeks to pay seventy-five percent out to payroll expenses and twenty-five percent out to other expenses, I’d have to rehire my whole staff back right now. You have to actually get to one hundred percent of full-time staff members by the end of June 30, which is this cut-off date. Then I have to lay them all off again.

The right thing to do is for us to flatten the curve and to keep everybody healthy, but then we have this Paycheck Protection Program that we want to use because we need to breathe some life into our restaurants. But we can’t use it because we’re not even open. What we’re fighting for right now is to have them make a fix to the PPP so we can have that extended out to when we’re allowed to open. We want to be able to use the money that’s being set aside for us when we’re actually operational.

Can you walk us through how this became dire so quickly for the restaurant industry?

Kwame Onwuachi [Initially], the government said we have to reduce our capacity by fifty percent and remove half of our tables from the dining area. We might as well close at that point. Fifty percent of our occupancy? We can’t operate on that.

Naomi Pomeroy When Kwame says we cut [occupancy by] fifty percent and that wasn’t enough for us, people need to understand that restaurants don’t start making money until they’re eighty percent full. We have to have full busy nights to even turn a profit, because ninety cents of every dollar that a restaurant takes in goes back out to pay its vendors, which is supporting that whole vast network, and to pay our employees, and do our operating expenses. If we get to keep ten percent we’re lucky. So unless we only lose two percent or three percent, we’re basically in such a tight margin that we won’t survive this crisis.

We’re living paycheck to paycheck as an industry. I think it’s important for us to see that as a win that we can have people start to understand how big our network is and how in some ways fragile our industry is—but how vital and valuable it is as well.

Our margins are very low. I think that what you’re seeing with the fact that there isn’t a carve out for restaurants within the PPP, people just haven’t understood. And I take responsibility for this. There’s also a responsibility we have to educate the larger community.

What happens if there isn’t significant government support?

Kwame Onwuachi We’re going to lose a lot of restaurants in America, and the economy will never be the same. If we don’t get the proper support we need, if we don’t also change this model or the regulations that are already in place that we’re also looking to have revised with some tax incentives and things like that, the restaurant industry won’t be the same ever again.

And these places that feed America, these small mom-and-pop shops, these places that have achieved their American dream, that have put everything into these restaurants—they won’t be able to survive.

Naomi Pomeroy And eleven million people will be out of work. And tens of millions of suppliers will have no place to deliver their product, and those businesses will close down too. So if we want to talk about looking at what’s best for America right now, it is fixing this problem so we can get up and running again so we can restart the economy.

If there’s help for the airline industry because we want to prop them up, then restaurants need help too, and we need things like incentives. We employ so many people that we should be able to get some tax credits. We have some strategies and ideas, and I feel like our strength is going to be continuing to do that, and to ask for those things that we need.

How do you organize all these ideas and come up with a unified message?

Naomi Pomeroy We have specific scripted things we can talk about where we can insert our individual stories in there and really get the memo across—the PPP doesn’t work for us. On the back side of that, we have other things we’re working on so we can get our next ask in line. It’s organized; it’s just really fast and furious.

What have been glimpses of hope or good will that you’ve experienced?

Kwame Onwuachi For me, personally, [it has been] my staff and the way they [have been] receptive to the current situation. [Chefs are] always supposed to be the people who have all the answers. We’re supposed to be the leader in the kitchen and very stoic and have our shit together all the time. I was like, “’Listen, we’re closing down. I know you probably saw this coming, but I don’t know what we’re going to do.’” And I just broke down and cried. And [an employee said to me], “It’s okay. This is not your fault. We’re all in this together. We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to come back and come back stronger.”

And then the way the IRC came together. Unfortunately, [the circumstances have] shown the vulnerability of the industry. But it also shows the strength of the industry, and how we’re able to come together and be united. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Naomi Pomeroy This pause has been powerful. I see people coming together around feeding hungry people in my community, and I feel a passion and a desire for that in a way. I always thought it was important, but to be frank, I didn’t have the time. Now I feel like this breathing space has really given me the time to reconsider what’s valuable to me and to knit back together with my team. I’m now having Zoom calls with my team [asking], “What do you want? What do you want to work on with the future of this industry that we’re in?” And it’s so awesome to be able to include them in that.

What do you hope we might see coming out of this that would create a more sustainable industry?

Naomi Pomeroy When we have a crisis, there’s always an opportunity to come out of that on the other side in a bigger and better way. One of the things you’ve seen the community gathering around in the last couple of years is health and wellness issues for our teams. But then, if we were going to give our teams work-life balance, we’d need more money to do that. My real hope is that we can at least have the CPR we need to get back up and running so we can even have [that] conversation.

Beyond that, if we can get the fixes we need and we do get some long-term support in terms of tax incentives and things like that. Creating and breathing health and vitality into the restaurant industry will have to do with how we come out of this crisis valuing ourselves, each other, and our network.

My true hope for myself is I will start to think about food in a less precious way. Feast is a pretty fancy restaurant, and while I really love making that food, I also understand there is a conversation that doesn’t happen about accessibility when it costs $150 to eat at your restaurant, and I really want to change that conversation. I envision some kind of model where people can continue to eat fancy food, but somehow, part of that money they spend goes to feeding people who don’t have access to food.

When chefs are pausing to have those kinds of reflective thoughts, there is an incredible amount of power to do good out of this crisis.

Kwame Onwuachi We have to have an industry after this in order for us to have that conversation, so that’s the IRC’s main objective. But we need to be able to pay our staff more, and people need to be more comfortable with paying more money for their food so people can afford to have healthcare. These small things are basic and should be human rights.

We’re over-regulated by people who don’t understand our industry. Why are we able to do liquor orders [now]? Why couldn’t we have been doing that this whole time and been making way more money so we could pay our staff more? Why can’t we sell bottles of wine and bottles of alcohol? These things will help us as a business.

I really hope that after this we’re able to pay people what they’re worth, after everything falls into place—they’re able to get healthcare, they’re able to take care of themselves, and we’re able to give them their time off they deserve. But there are structural issues within the restaurant industry that have been flawed for a long time.

I hope this advocacy continues. The IRC—we have come together so fast and pounced on this problem. I feel in my heart we’re going to continue to do that, and we’re going to continue to fix problems within the industry and be that voice for all the restaurants.

This transcript was edited for clarity and length.

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