WASHINGTON -- Amanda Cohen is a leader of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a new lobbying group of chefs and restaurants that was formed in response to the viral pandemic. Professionally, Cohen is the chef and owner of Dirt Candy, a fine-dining vegetarian restaurant in New York City.
The Associated Press spoke recently with Cohen about the coalition, whose leadership includes many other prominent chefs, including Jose Andres, Marcus Samuelsson and Thomas Keller.
Q. Restaurants and their employees suffered an especially heavy economic blow in the pandemic from the enforced lockdowns. How heavily has the burden fallen on independent restaurants and minorities?
A. Restaurants are gathering places, and right now we can’t gather. State and local governments are reducing our seating capacity, but no one has done anything to reduce our fixed costs like rent and utilities. So we’re going into debt. Unlike larger companies, we don’t have access to new capital. One in four unemployed during the pandemic worked in food and beverage services — more than in any other industry — and over half these people are minorities.
Q. How do you define independent restaurants? How many are expected to survive the pandemic?
A. Independent restaurants aren’t publicly traded companies, and they have 20 or fewer locations. We have some big operators, but the majority are small owner-operated restaurants. And 85% of us are not confident we can reopen.
Q. How was the restaurant coalition formed?
A. Independent chefs never had a trade group. We never lobbied — that’s always been something for the big franchises. The pandemic kicked our legs out from under us, and we started organizing. The more we talked, the more we realized that if we worked together we had a big voice. We represent almost 500,000 restaurants, or three quarters of the industry.
Q. What help are you looking for from the government?
A. We’re asking for a $120 billion fund to provide grants to allow independent restaurants to make up for the revenue they’ve lost. It sounds like a lot of money. But people should realize that restaurants pass on 90% of their revenue to landlords, employees and vendors. This is money that would find its way to struggling ranchers in Texas, farmers in Kansas, dairies in Ohio.
Q. How hard has it been for independent restaurants to adopt measures to guard against the virus?
A. Every independent restaurant I know is requiring employees to wear masks, and all of us are taking every precaution. But the spacing guidelines keep changing. Cities say one thing, governors another, the president says a third, and what they say changes week to week. It’s stressful, and it’s expensive for us to keep upgrading our facilities to accommodate the shifting requirements.
Interviewed by Marcy Gordon.
Edited for clarity and length.