“When I got into this business, I promised myself that I’d leave it in better shape than I found it. By 2019, I’d given up hope that was possible,” said chef Amanda Cohen, owner of Dirt Candy in New York City. “The Independent Restaurant Coalition makes me feel hopeful again.”
Cohen is talking about a small but scrappy group of restaurant and bar owners across the country who have come together to unite their voices as a collective of small businesses to affect legislative change. Their viral hashtag #SaveRestaurants underscores their mission to fight for reforms and legislation that promote equality and sustainability for independent restaurants, which employ more than 10 million people in the U.S.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) began earlier this year, as the pandemic took hold and forced New York City restaurants to close for all but take-out. Once comprised of just 40 members, the group now has nearly 200. The IRC supports restaurant owners, employees, and the often forgotten vendors and suppliers vital to the local and national economies, to a tune of $760 billion nationally. Outside of the staggering financial donations are their even more intangible and priceless contributions to our culture.
With one in six restaurants estimated to have already closed this year and up to 85 percent at risk of closing by the end of the year, the IRC has jumped into action to bring the voice of the restaurant industry to Congress, with the hopes of passing the $2.2 trillion relief bill, the HEROES Act of 2020.
Their efforts resulted in the latest iteration of the HEROES Act, which includes a $120 billion relief package in the form of grants to restaurants and bars across the country called the “Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed to Survive" (RESTAURANTS) Act. In addition to the $120 billion in grants, there is an expanded Employee Retention Tax Credit and a new round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds.
Fighting on behalf of 500,000 small businesses across the United States is Cohen. She is on the Advisory Board of the IRC and testified before Congress for the RESTAURANTS Act.
“Originally, [restaurant owners] all came together because no one knew what to do, but we felt like we needed to do something because our restaurants were dying. We wanted to get some kind of government aid, and we quickly got involved with the PPP. For months we spent all our energy fixing the PPP so that it better addressed the needs of restaurants,” she told TripSavvy.
Only about eight percent of PPP funds went to the hospitality sector. But PPP was never designed for restaurants, with their specific needs and access issues—plus, the pandemic harmed restaurants in ways that other industries were not. (This August, the hospitality industry’s unemployment rate was at 18.8 percent, for instance—well above the national average of just 8.4 percent.)
Cohen realized how crucial a peer-to-peer resource and support group was. “We all wished we’d thought of it before because it would have been huge to have this kind of voice before the pandemic,” she said.
Cohen is joined by Camilla Marcus, chef and owner of west~bourne and founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Marcus’ law degree and restaurant experience allow her to engage in conversations surrounding legislation and reform more profoundly, unpacking the rhetoric and structure utilized by lawmakers and government officials to understand what’s being put on the table by various bills and proposals.
“The IRC’s work is fast and furious, and my job as a founding member is to match that tenacity and aptitude by putting in my personal energy, recruiting that of my team at west~bourne, lobbying lawmakers and key policy decision-makers, spreading awareness, and mobilizing my community within and outside of the restaurant industry,” Marcus said.
The restaurant industry is one of the largest private employers in the country, second only to health care. However, independent restaurants, despite there being over 500,000 across the U.S., “have never had a seat at the table when it comes to legislation and regulations,” Marcus explained. “The IRC is the vehicle through which we will hopefully secure critical financial relief for our industry, which faces an incredibly bleak future without support.”
The RESTAURANTS Act has more than 30 Senators signed on as co-sponsors and over 200 Representatives with bipartisan support. The Act passed on the floor of the House. “It’s almost unheard of for a brand new group like ours to get a bill voted on and passed in six months or less,” said Cohen.
If the RESTAURANTS Act passes the Senate, then every single small restaurant owner across the country can take a breath.
“Suddenly, the wolf isn’t at the door. Suddenly, we’ll all have a much, much better chance of making it through this together. When we started the IRC, we didn’t know our own strength,” Cohen said. “No one involved realized that there were 500,000 independent restaurants in this country. We didn’t understand that we employed 11 million workers. We didn’t even know how much money we put into the economy. Together, we have way more power than we knew we had, and now it’s the time to start exercising it to make this industry better for everyone.”
Because BIPOC- and women-owned businesses were drastically underserved as part of the original Paycheck Protection Program, the IRC has made sure that the first two weeks of the new bill allow only BIPOC- and women-owned businesses to apply.
At the moment, all of the IRC’s resources are focused on the RESTAURANTS Act, but with the intention of formalizing the group after its passage so they can keep fighting for independent restaurants.
Even if the RESTAURANTS Act gets passed, “there are a lot of other fights we need to take on, too,” said Cohen. “The National Restaurant Association does a great job of serving franchise and chain restaurants, but we feel like someone needs to advocate for independent restaurants, which we define as having 20 or fewer locations and not being publicly traded.”
Marcus encourages restaurant owners of all sizes to use their voice to affect change. “Whether your experience looks like mine or you’ve been an operator for 30 years when we unite all our voices, we are too small to fail and are too loud to be ignored,” she said. “This is an election year, among other things, so congress is diligently listening to their constituents, meaning YOU. So use your voice, speak up for what you believe is right, and garner the support of your representatives for the restaurants you love.”
Main Photo: Evan Sung / Dirt Candy; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang