September 25, 2020, 7:10

Tom Colicchio on What It Will Take for Restaurants to Survive

Tom Colicchio on What It Will Take for Restaurants to Survive

Tom Colicchio, the chef and restaurateur, has an uncanny knack for being at the center of culinary culture. His book “Think Like a Chef,” published, in 2000, at the dawn of the celebrity-chef era, inspired countless wannabe stove jockeys; his star turn on “Top Chef,” America’s first major culinary reality show and a catalyst of the food-TV boom, made him a household name. (The show is currently airing its seventeenth season.) Now, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to government-mandated restaurant closures across the United States, putting millions of Americans out of work, Colicchio is in the spotlight again, as one of the founding chefs of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a lobbying group that sprang into existence at the end of March. Before then, there was only one major restaurant lobbying group in Washington, the National Restaurant Association—also known as “the other N.R.A.”— which primarily represents the interests of chain restaurants and corporate food service. Colicchio is the proprietor of Crafted Hospitality, a restaurant group comprised of Craft, a longtime staple of Manhattan fine dining, and other establishments in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, all of which are currently closed. He spoke to me recently by phone from his home on Long Island, where his family has been sheltering in place, about the fragility of the American food system, the rights of workers, and the as-yet-uncharted road to reopening. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition came together incredibly quickly. I don’t think I realized it was possible to form a lobbying group with that kind of speed.

It started with a phone call that I received from a guy named Andrew Chason. He’s an agent who represents chefs. He was calling to say there’s some foundation money available, and can we do something with it? I was, like, save it for now, because this is much bigger than a foundation problem. And then, right after that, I got an unrelated call from a friend of mine who I used to lobby with when I was with Food Policy Action. And something clicked for me. I talked to [the Portland chef] Naomi Pomeroy, [the former Obama chef] Sam Kass, other folks. Very quickly, within two days, we had some funding, and my lobbyist friend put us in touch with a lobbying firm.

That kind of put us in the game immediately. There was a coalition of a hundred chefs and restaurateurs down South that was working on the same idea, and another group in the Chicago area. We found people in Seattle, and Portland, and people from all over. Every day, we’d have a Zoom call, just kind of laying out policy, and then the lobbyists would kind of give us our direction, in terms of sticking to the talking points. There was a lot of booking on a lot of media—CNN, MSNBC. They had me on Fox a couple times—that was a shocker!

One of the I.R.C.’s initial areas of focus was passing the Paycheck Protection Program. The due date for those loans is May 7th.

We’ve been focussed for weeks now on fixing P.P.P. The problem with P.P.P. is that you can do all the stuff you need to do, and the P.P.P. gives you some revenue that’s going to help for the next few months. But, if your business isn’t open, it’s essentially unemployment—you’re paying your staff not to work. That’s not really helping restaurants.

And let’s just say you are open by May 7th, somehow—we’re not going to get anything near the amount of business we’d do this time of year, so we’re back to restaurants laying people off again. We’re kind of painted into a corner here.

If P.P.P. isn’t a workable solution to keep restaurants afloat, what is?

What we’re now asking for is something we’re calling a restaurant-stabilization package. We saw that the N.R.A. was asking for a two-hundred-and-forty-billion-dollar package, and we said, “All right, we think that the independent restaurants should get a hundred and twenty billion of that.” Independent restaurants employ eleven or so million people. When you factor in our supply chains, like fishermen and winemakers and farmers, we indirectly employ probably another six, seven, ten million. For the most part, with restaurants, every dollar we take in, ninety-five cents of that goes out the door again. So we feel that we’re in a unique position to push as much of that federal relief money through the system—it’s really stimulus, because it’s getting spent.

What does actually reopening look like for restaurants?

For me, it’s about safety. I’m looking at various plans, and I just don’t know how it’s going to go. Someone walks into your restaurant and they touch the door handle—do you have to go right behind them and disinfect it? Waiters with masks on, bartenders with masks on. Customers are going to have to have masks on, and what are they going to do? Lift it to eat their food and drink their drinks? There’s so many questions to ask. Clearly, we’re going to have to take at least half of our seats out of the restaurant. That doesn’t work for revenue.

There’s no way restaurants are going to be able to open and maintain the staffing levels they had before COVID, unless we get this stabilization fund we’re asking for or P.P.P. is expanded. Is it better to just not open right now and try to regroup in December? I don’t know what the answers are. You can just go into a straight model where you’re doing takeout, delivery, some sort of service, plus community feeding, and then combine everything and hope it works. There are plenty of restaurants that are doing that, but whether or not it’s successful, whether or not it’s sustainable, I don’t know.

Last month, you were talking about September as a likely reopening date for your restaurants. You just mentioned December. What’s your sense of the timeline?

I definitely see no reason to open to a summer where the customers are gone. For our restaurants, at least, our customers are already in the Hamptons, and they’re not coming back, and the tourists certainly aren’t going to be coming to New York. For neighborhood restaurants and lower-priced restaurants, there’s probably more of a reason to open earlier. But I just don’t know. I don’t have answers yet.

My concern isn’t actually getting open, though. My concern is, once you’re open, how do you last for a year? So many restaurants will open, and then in six months they’ll close and they won’t open again. Just like there could be a whole second wave of the illness, there’s going to a whole second wave of closures.

If so much of restaurant revenue goes back out the door, it seems like figuring out a way to reopen restaurants safely—and keep them open—would be a priority for more than just restaurant people.

I mean, No. 1, the farmers. Especially the folks that you see at the farmers’ market—their market is independent restaurants. That’s all gone right now. Some of them are still working through restaurants that are doing C.S.A.s and things like that.

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The fear is that if these farmers go, with the great product they supply, what’s going to set our restaurants apart from the big chain restaurants? I don’t want to have to buy into their massive supply chain. That’s not going to do it for me.

Dan Barber is doing something pretty neat up at Stone Barns. He’s trying to keep the supply chain intact, so he’s still using all of his farmers that he uses, his fishermen, all that, and he’s creating these takeout boxes. It’s roast chicken, a couple things of squash, some broccoli—he’s just using whatever his farmers have. He’s realized that he’s no longer a chef—he’s a food processor.

Have you considered doing anything like that?

If I get open, that would be part of it, without a doubt. I think so far it’s the best model to keep the supply chain intact. It’s spring right now, so until recently the farms weren’t producing a lot of stuff, but we’ve got to have some sort of solution by summer. I’ve talked to a few people, like Mateo Kehler, up at Jasper Hill, where they make cheese. They’re changing some of their production away from those soft-ripened cheeses to focus on hard-ripened cheeses, because you can put them in a cave longer. But then they’re running out of cave space! It’s just very complex.

On a much larger scale, if you look at what’s going on with these meat producers—they’re all shutting down because of COVID, because their entire workforce is getting infected. They say as much as ninety per cent of the meat supply could be affected by these shutdowns. Your farmer who’s growing pigs? He’s not slaughtering those pigs himself—he’s selling them to the processor. Well, now the processor shut down, so what are the farmers supposed to do with those pigs? You keep hearing these stories: farmers are throwing milk out, and meanwhile people are lining up for food.When you start tracing things backward through various parts of the food system, you realize how big of a problem this has become.

People have been talking for a long time about how fragile our systems are. Did anyone see this coming?

Especially on the big side—big farms, big meat producers—production is so highly concentrated. When you take a system where so much is getting done in just one plant, and it’s all set up for efficiency—if we spread out that system, if we had more regional producers, I think we’d be much more resilient. But we don’t have that system, and this is because of corporate power and monopolies. There are laws to break these large meat packers up, but we just don’t enforce them. Obviously, that leads to a conversation about wages and workers’ rights in those plants, and that’s probably part of the reason all these workers are getting sick. They had zero ability to actually protect themselves.

I’m sorry. I’m taking us far away from the restaurant conversation.

It seems like it’s kind of all the same thing. You’re the gatekeepers of this entire supply chain. Or maybe not the gatekeepers but the door, the entry point.

No, no, we’re the output. We’re not the door in—we’re the door out. All that food has to go somewhere.

Some states are really pushing forward on reopening their economies right now. Have you talked to any restaurateurs in Georgia and in Texas who are on this accelerated reopening timeline?

I’ve spoken to Hugh Acheson, in Georgia, who’s not opening. He’s doing community feeding, producing food for hospital workers and food banks. He has the same mentality I would have—I would consider asking my workers to come back to work if we were going to do community feeding, maybe. But I’m certainly not going to ask them to come back to work for just a couple thousand dollars in revenue. I’d be putting them at risk. We’re telling everyone to stay home, we’re telling them to shelter in place—all the science is telling us to do that, all the doctors are telling us to do that—so we’re telling them, “Don’t come to work.” The overwhelming majority of my workers are collecting unemployment, and we’re helping out those who aren’t able to get it. When I feel that the spread of the virus is definitely slowing down in a big way, that’s the time for me to bring people back to work. Other people are making different decisions based on what’s best for them. That’s fine.

Is it really fine?

In a way, it doesn’t matter. Because the question isn’t when a restaurant can open. The question is: when can the public feel safe going to a restaurant? I don’t think it’s going to happen in Georgia or Texas just because the governor says, “Open up!” What’s going to happen is, if they become hot spots [for the virus] again, because they’re open, that’s going to really be bad for them.

You have a history of political activism and lobbying before all this. Can you talk a little bit about that?

My father was a union organizer, and I would always hear talk of politics in the house. But it really wasn’t until my wife’s film came out—“A Place at the Table”—that I started getting really active. Her thesis, in the film, was that people are hungry in this country not because of famine or war or drought, not because we don’t have enough food to feed people, but because we don’t have the political will to feed people. We made a political argument for why we need a more robust safety net, especially around food. And, obviously, because of the platform I have, because I’m on TV, that put me square in the middle of a political conversation.

Then we started Food Policy Action—we published a scorecard grading Congress on how they voted around food issues—hunger, farming, fishing. I spent a lot of time on the Hill, lobbying around these issues, especially around the Farm Bill, and school lunch, and transparency in the food system.

Hold on one second. . . . Oh, my flours are here! Yay!

Cooking flour or flower-flowers?

My cooking flour! I’ve been baking bread. I do a loaf every other day, and I ran out of bread flour, and you can’t get it at the stores near me. So I went to a supplier and ordered a fifty-pound bag of bread flour, another fifty-pound bag of a specialty flour, and a fifty-pound bag of spelt. So I’m set now. I’m good.

Given all your policy experience, I’m surprised you weren’t approached by the White House to be part of the coronavirus small-business council.

That’s funny. It’s not surprising to me, no. I would have thought they would have reached out to Danny Meyer, or someone like that.

Were you surprised that the chefs on the council—Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud—agreed to do it?

You know, there was a lot of criticism when it was announced—“Ooh, it’s just a bunch of white-tablecloth white guys.” I get that. But if I’m one of those chefs, and I’m desperately trying to save the industry however I can, and I get a call from the White House—it’s hard to say no to that. Would I have said, “This is a great honor”? No, I don’t think I would have done that.

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The panel is not representative of the industry. There should be women on that panel. There should be people of color on that panel. But I don’t know if the chefs who got asked to do it would say, “I’ll give up my seat, because you’ve got to bring a woman or a person of color in.” And, if they did, I don’t think the White House would go along with that. You get the e-mail, you say O.K. so you can get in the room.

It’s the usual chess game.

Yeah, it is, and this is the way the game is played. Everyone in Washington is trying to do whatever they can to help. Both sides of the aisle.

I was surprised, a couple of weeks ago, to see Marco Rubio’s Op-Ed in the Times talking about the resilience of our supply chains, that America is too centralized in our production, everything is too fragile—a lot of the same things you’re talking about.

He’s absolutely right. The question is what is he going to do about it? Again, ultimately, we’re talking about breaking up monopolies. Back in the nineteen-twenties, when we did that, it was all under the guise of “this is bad for democracy.” What’s going on right now is the government saying just the opposite: “Businesses need freedom!” I think it was Louis Brandeis who said if you concentrate that much power and money into an individual, clearly they can affect politics, and therefore the system is no longer democratic. That’s where we are again.

There’s people saying we need a more resilient system, and then there’s people who are saying no, we want to keep consolidating these companies, because there’s efficiencies here. But who’s paying the price? The workers are paying the price, and the environment’s paying the price. What I’m hoping is that COVID exposes these weaknesses. It exposes the inequities. I mean, why are African-Americans and people of color dying more frequently from the virus? These are health concerns, and they’re political concerns. We need to look at systemic changes, as opposed to just getting ourselves through COVID only.

Here’s an example: pre-COVID, thirty-six million Americans were on food stamps, on SNAP. I read something recently from one of these anti-hunger organizations that, in Maryland, since all this started, applications for SNAP went up seventy-one per cent. So, if you apply that to the rest of the country, seventy-one per cent on top of thirty-six million, that’s another twenty-five million people. After COVID, do we want to get that number back down to thirty-six million? That’s O.K. for us? No! We have to do better than that.

So it makes me have a little more hope when I see even Marco Rubio realizing that our food system is fragile.

I don’t know if he went that far. It seemed like his case was mostly that we need to bring factory production back to the U.S., so we’re less reliant on China. I’m curious, though, how this sort of system thinking applies to restaurants as businesses. Obviously, these huge chains have a higher degree of lobbying influence. But even within the independent-restaurant world there’s folks like you, you know? You have a big restaurant group, you guys have a lot of capital—

I don’t have a big restaurant group. I have five restaurants. I’m nowhere near as big as people think I am. Not counting the two in Vegas that are not really mine, I have five restaurants. I find it funny.

Well, let’s put it another way. You can afford to close your restaurants and make the decision that you’re not going to have your staff come in, but there are some chefs running smaller, less well-capitalized operations who are talking about how they can’t tell their employees not to come in, because they can’t pay rent unless they have money coming in. What do they do?

Don’t pay rent. Call your landlord and say, “I can’t pay rent.”

Are you paying your rent?

The government shut me down—I can’t pay rent. I’m talking to my landlords. I’m trying to figure out if I can defer. Not everybody’s in that position—I get it. But even the large restaurant groups don’t have money socked away where they can just pay rent without money coming in. I think, no matter how big you are, everybody’s in the same boat.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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