The Rise

Seven months ago, the Independent Restaurant Coalition didn't exist. Now it has a seat at the table.

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Bobby Stuckey is fighting for industry survival. / Joe Friend, joefriendphotography.com

In government, there’s a nickname—”Stucky”—affixed to the person who gets stuck doing the work. So it’s somewhat ironic that, when spoken aloud, Bobby Stuckey’s last name has the same ring. The difference is that the co-owner and master sommelier of Frasca Food and Wine, Tavernetta, Sunday Vinyl, and Pizzeria Locale, doesn’t at all feel like a mule. Instead, his work on the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a pandemic-formed trade group working on behalf of independent restaurants, feels like a calling.

On the morning of March 16, the Denver restaurant community received word that Mayor Michael Hancock was closing restaurants for dine-in until May 11. Shortly thereafter, Governor Polis followed with a statewide order. By the end of the day—one that will forever live in infamy—multiple states were shut down. Despite the unprecedented news, Stuckey remained pretty calm. After all, he’d been paying his business interruption insurance. It wasn’t until his claim was denied a couple of hours later that a knot in his stomach—one that hasn’t gone away since—began to form. “My dad is in the [insurance] business,” Stuckey says. “I knew you couldn’t get a denial that fast. My dad said, ‘You got a denial in 15 minutes? They’ve been planning this for months.’ I knew everything was hitting the fan.” 

Because of a little-known insurance clause excluding pandemic damages, every restaurant operator in the country—Stuckey among them—was suddenly without a net. That’s when the calls started. You can almost visualize the cell towers lighting up, first locally and then nationally. The collective message was, “We need to have a voice,” says Stuckey. And then, on the morning of March 18, his phone rang; on the other end was Will Guidara, former co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and NoMad and co-founder of the Welcome Conference. That afternoon, a group of some of the nation’s most influential chefs, restaurateurs, and industry thought leaders gathered for a call. Thus marks the beginning of a desperate journey to save the nation’s 500,000 independent restaurants.

Within a day, the assembled group of 16, which included megawatt chefs like Kwame Onwuachi and Naomi Pomeroy, had a name: the Independent Restaurant Coalition. Just as quickly, it had an Instagram account and a hashtag: #saverestaurants. For the first time, the hospitality industry had a unified voice specific to independents. Funding from corporate sponsors was used to hire a Washington, D.C.-based strategic communications firm. “We took the money and gave it to the people who knew what they were doing,” Stuckey says of the all-volunteer organization. Although some IRC members, including Tom Colicchio and Andrew Zimmern, were already politically active, the balance were restaurant people, who while well connected, had never dreamed of stepping into the political arena. 

[The IRC] has really put together well-written statements and they’ve been pleading our case and getting it circulated to get digital signatures. That’s a voice and that’s a responsibility—and I need half of my 30,000 followers to share it.

Brother Luck, chef-owner of Lucky Dumpling and Four By Brother Luck in Colorado Springs

As COVID tightened its viral arms around the nation, the IRC spent frantic hours on the phone and on Zoom. There were 20 calls a week, pregame calls to the official calls, and homework to report back on. There were virtual meetings with state representatives where restaurant folks told their stories. The IRC commissioned an independent study examining the impact of coronavirus on the industry. And it launched a persuasive Instagram campaign with industry facts and figures encouraging its biggest platform—the public, their loyal diners—to flood their government officials with this message: The $760 billion restaurant industry was being snuffed out, and it needed immediate help. Without aid, an estimated 80 percent of restaurants might never reopen, leaving 20 to 30 percent of the American workforce out in the cold. “[The IRC] has really put together well-written statements and they’ve been pleading our case and getting it circulated to get digital signatures,” says Brother Luck, chef-owner of Lucky Dumpling and Four By Brother Luck in Colorado Springs. “That’s a voice and that’s a responsibility—and I need half of my 30,000 followers to share it.”

The IRC, which is now 180 members strong, became a galvanizing force for independents. The first order of business was fixing the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, which originally passed in late March, was a life raft with holes in it. It hardly needs explaining how its scope was too narrow, the expiration date on forgivable loans too short, and the guidelines on how the money could be spent too strict for restaurants existing solely on takeout and curbside. When, several weeks later, the PPP received more funding and Washington funneled $25 billion to the airlines—an industry that employs 15 times fewer Americans—it was a dagger to the heart of hospitality. “I think this has something to do with Americans’ attitude toward the service industry,” says 5280 Magazine restaurant critic Scott Mowbray. “The country looks at one of its sectors that is disproportionately served by people of color and the opinion of the service industry is low. This [decision] has made it clear.” 

The IRC was livid and issued the following statement: “Today we learned Congress does not care if local restaurants close forever. The Senate passed new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program but until that program is fixed, it still won’t help America’s 500,000 independent restaurants reopen or ensure their 11 million employees have a job when this ends.” The reality of the work to be done—not to mention the effort to keep their own restaurants from going under—was setting in for IRC members. “This is a small group of people working so hard at an uncomfortable level to pull the needs for 500,000 restaurants,” Stuckey says. “That’s a powerful anvil on my chest every morning.”

What followed was a letter addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, and Kevin McCarthy, again making the case that without restaurants, the economy would not and could not rebound. Neighborhoods, supply chains, and lives would be decimated. On May 18, after weeks of drumming up support for PPP fixes and a restaurant-specific stabilization fund, representatives of the IRC met with President Trump. 

Caroline Glover of Annette says that working on the IRC has restored her faith in democracy. / From The Hip

Eighteen days later—and only two and a half months since forming—the IRC got its first measurable win when Trump signed the PPP Flexibility Act into law. “It was really inspiring to see that [this country] is still a democracy,” says Caroline Glover, chef-owner of Annette in Aurora and an early member of the coalition. “Change happens and it happened because hundreds of thousands of people were getting behind our industry.” Although scores of restaurants made it through the summer that might not have without the legislation, the IRC acknowledged that the fix was just a breather, a water station in an ultrarace with no finish line.

In June, on IRC urging, the Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive (RESTAURANTS) Act, which specifically addresses small independent restaurants, was introduced by Democrat Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. The bipartisan bill had “IRC pawprints all over it,” says Stuckey. The premise is a $120 billion grant program targeting small restaurants, including mom and pops, food trucks, and caterers. For the first 14 days of funding, entities owned by women, BIPOC, and veterans, and those netting $1.5 million or less in annual revenue, get first dibs. Grants, which do not need to be paid back, will cover the difference between revenues from 2019 and projected revenues through 2020. After those first 14 days, the definition of “small and independent” becomes restaurants that are not publicly traded and have no more than 20 locations under the same name. For example, Stuckey’s four Pizzeria Locale locations do not qualify because Chipotle is a major stakeholder. “Pizzeria Locale would not get funds from the RESTAURANTS Act,” Stuckey says. “We understand that independent restaurants have a much different and unique playing field than something that has access to capital. This is about the little person. It’s about the fabric of these 500,000 little restaurants.”

The IRC projects that the RESTAURANTS Act could save up to 16 million jobs nationwide and 345,300 in Colorado specifically. Across the state, 8.7 percent of all employment comes from restaurant and drinking establishments. And because it’s industry-specific, the funds will only go to restaurants, unlike PPP funding, which was spread out across industries. As of press time, Colorado congressional members: Reps. Diana DeGette (D), Joe Neguse (D), Jason Crow (D), and Ed Perlmutter (D), and Sen. Cory Gardner (R) have signed onto the bill. “This industry plays an enormous role in our economy, and we have to get this right,” says Gardner. “[Restaurants] were told to close, told not to serve, told to have limited capacity. The government did this, and now the government needs to help them out of this.”

In Colorado, the RESTAURANTS Act still desperately needs the support of those who have not signed on. As of press time, this includes Reps. Scott Tipton (R), Doug Lamborn (R), Ken Buck (R), and Sen. Michael Bennet (D). In total, the bill, which reaches across the aisle, currently has the support of 40 senators and 200 representatives. (It will not pass if majority isn’t reached.) “If enough people want this to happen, it’ll happen,” says Glover. “That’s how politics work. The people in charge want to please the people. Now that I’ve seen [the process] happen I believe in it a bit more.”

Another bill, the RESTART Act, which has National Restaurant Association underpinnings, may be pulling support away from the RESTAURANTS Act. It’s co-sponsored by Bennet and its focus is small business, but there is nothing restaurant-specific about it. Gardner is quick to say that this isn’t an either/or decision. “I’m a co-sponsor of [the RESTART Act],” he explains. “This was an all-hands-on-deck response to the health pandemic. Now we need an all-hands-on-deck response to the economic crisis. I welcome as many tools in the tool box for restaurants and for the economy.”

Where there’s criticism of the coalition, it’s that the organization is working on short-term goals. “We shouldn’t be focusing on a Band-Aid instead of a systematic restructure,” says Juan Padro of the Culinary Creative restaurant group, who has been outspoken about the IRC’s efforts, which he sees as too narrow. “I will say [the IRC] deserves a lot of credit for elevating the conversation to the place where it’s at, but we should be talking about debt structure for restaurants. We should be talking about access to traditional capital for minority and disadvantaged businesses.”

The IRC was formed with one singular purpose: to save independent restaurants and bars. We will continue to be a force of change long after the RESTAURANTS Act is passed.

Erika Polmar, IRC COO

For the IRC’s part, the group says it isn’t in any way opposed to systemic change, but its mission first and foremost is to keep doors open, because if there are no independent restaurants left, efforts at a seismic shift are moot. “The IRC was formed with one singular purpose: to save independent restaurants and bars,” says Erika Polmar, the coalition’s COO. “We will continue to be a force of change long after the RESTAURANTS Act is passed.”

Back in his restaurants, all of which have reopened for dine-in, Stuckey walks the tightrope now common in every functioning restaurant. When guests ask how things are going, he says, “You can’t even tell the truth. You don’t want to tell them how bad it is for the restaurant they’re sitting in and also for the whole industry.” Stuckey, ever the hospitalitarian, is cautious about shattering that fine line between reality and the brief respite customers are seeking from the outside world. Meanwhile, his restaurants—and the industry as a whole—depend on telling the dire truth. “The IRC will only be effective if we get a bill through. We’re not about pride of authorship and it doesn’t have to be our bill,” he says. “We just want to save restaurants.”

We urge you to contact your federal representatives to demand they support the RESTAURANTS Act. It’s easy to reach them; check out our article on contacting your elected officials. And talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com

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