Celebrity Chefs Work Congress to Bring Relief for Restaurants

Well-known chefs like Netflix’s Ugly Delicious host David Chang and Bravo’s Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio are using their platforms to mobilize support for the $900 billion restaurant industry, which is facing widespread unemployment among its more than 15 million employees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re not asking for a bailout, we’re asking to put us back to work,” Colicchio, who owns five restaurants, said in a phone interview Monday.

Eateries around the country have been forced to close their doors or radically scale down their businesses as states and localities enact “social distancing” policies in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, also known as Covid-19.

Now the industry is pressing Congress to include measures in its anticipated $2 trillion stimulus bill to help save jobs and keep millions of restaurants from shuttering permanently.

“I think this is going to be something that fundamentally alters the landscape of what restaurants are going to be when we look back on it,” Chang said last week on his podcast, The David Chang Show. “An incredibly high rate of restaurants will never open up again.”

The pandemic crisis has led to the creation of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which includes Colicchio as well as notable chefs such as Food Network star and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson and Andrew Zimmern, a restaurant owner and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods.

The individual and collective efforts by celebrity chefs are in addition to the push by the National Restaurant Association, an industry behemoth that spends millions of dollars on federal advocacy every year.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for DC Central Kitchen
Baseball player Ryan Zimmerman with celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Andrew Zimmern at DC Central Kitchen’s Capital Food Fight 2019.

New Coalition, Community Kitchens

The Independent Restaurant Coalition, which formed last week, hired lobbyists and a public affairs firm co-founded by Stephanie Cutter, who previously served as a senior campaign aide to former President Barack Obama.

The group, and Colicchio individually, have been regularly in contact with policymakers about the relief efforts needed for small restaurants. They’re pushing for an income replacement program based on what individual restaurants reported earning the previous year.

“We’re in the room where these negotiations are happening,” he said, noting he was on the phone with a member of Congress before the interview. Lawmakers, he added, are being receptive to their requests.

“If you replace my income, I rehire everyone who has been laid off. They’re working—or at least employed,” said Colicchio, who had to lay off 300 people. Businesses and employees would still pay taxes on that income to keep money flowing to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.

The income replacement, which would be routed through the Treasury Department and able to be accessed monthly, would allow restaurant owners to pay staff, vendors and landlords. They’re also advocating for oversight measures.

Restaurants would then be able to turn into community kitchens, he said, where people in need could be served food for free. With slimmed down operations, employers could allow workers with children to stay at home while still getting paid. It would also help keep others in the supply chain—from purveyors to farmers—to stay afloat.

Seats at the Table

Last week, the National Restaurant Association sent a letter to President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi(D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) requesting that Congress approve a $145 billion recovery fund at the Treasury Department, $35 billion in community development block grants, business interruption insurance, unemployment insurance and an expanded loan assistance, among other things.

A plea from the group to send letters to Congress has already resulted in nearly 250,000 grassroots responses, according to the association’s website.

“Economically, we are anticipating sales to decline by $225 billion during the next three months, which will prompt the loss of between five and seven million jobs. The restaurant industry is one of low margins, tight cash flow, and a workforce that depends on us for their livelihood,” the letter reads.

“Without aggressive and immediate action from the federal government, many restaurants that are a staple of local communities will simply never resume service,” the association said.

Colicchio said the coalition recently had a conference call with the restaurant industry group to voice the concerns of independent restaurants.

“They’re realizing they’re not the only seat at the table anymore, so our voices are being heard,” he said.

Bother Your Representatives

The latest versions of Congress’ economic stimulus package, the third legislative effort to curb the coronavirus threat, already includes loans for small businesses. But loans would be more of a burden in the immediate term for small restaurant owners, Colicchio and Chang said.

Colicchio told Bloomberg Government that 10-year, no-interest loans may help businesses once they open, but there’s a sense of urgency to have immediate cash to get the economy going. And it’s needed right now.

Chang, in his podcast, suggested enacting the universal $1,000 basic income payments promoted by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, a rent abatement program for restaurant owners, and a grant program for individual restaurants so they’re able to get back up and running.

“If we create a loan program for restaurants, it’s going to be as suffocating as the student loan crisis is today,” Chang said. “We’re giving these people low-interest loans, but that’s the problem—you’re going to pay this thing back forever and maybe not at all.”

He’s been telling his peers to “call your elected representatives and bother the shit out of them until they say we’re going to take this seriously,” he said.

Chef Robert Wiedmaier, who owns Marcel’s and several other restaurants in Washington D.C, used an Instagram video to urge people to call their elected officials and ask them for relief for the industry.

“We are always there, the restaurant community, all my chef friends, we’ve always been there for all the fundraisers through many years to raise money for other charities,” he said.

“The faucet has turned off for all of us,” he said, as he announced he was forced to lay off his staff.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan R. Wilson in Washington at mwilson@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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