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Tom Colicchio On Saving Restaurants In The COVID Era And How We Can Fix Our Broken Food System

The wonderful thing about watching Top Chef during this pandemic is that it offers perfect escapism. It’s about people living together in a house, about sharing and preparing communal meals, about going to restaurants, and about competing to work in one of our last honest businesses: the restaurant industry. Not to mention, it offers the kind of intense familiarity that only a show that’s been on for almost 15 years can bring. Remember how things used to be? Isn’t it great how things never change?

Talking to Top Chef host Tom Colicchio is… well, not like that at all.

It’s more like getting repeatedly slapped in the face by reality. I’ve always appreciated Colicchio’s refusal to play along with the usual unscripted TV drama (you could make an hour-long supercut of his eye rolls alone) but now that I want to have a nice light interview about yummy food and my pretend friends from the TV, all he wants to do is assault me with facts and enlist me in the fight to get someone, anyone, to care.

I should’ve known better. Colicchio is a restauranteur, and restaurants, notoriously a precarious business even in boom times, are… let’s say “facing an unknown future.” He has a massive staff he has to think about, and, if that weren’t enough, there are his non-profit ventures dealing with hunger and nutrition. All those events they put on in order to raise money? Gone. And all the people that money goes to help? Multiplying exponentially by the day. According to one of the organizations that Tom supports, FoodCorps, which supports food distribution and school gardens for communities at risk, there’s been a 50 percent increase in students eligible to receive subsidized meals thanks to the sudden surge in unemployment.

It’s hard not to feel demoralized. But Colicchio is fired up. He has facts, organizations, action plans. He speaks in complete paragraphs. How could I ask about TV and sauce recipes when he was on such a roll? Luckily, I didn’t want to. What he had to say as a restaurant owner, a businessman, and someone who has seen the food supply chain and its infrastructure first hand was more interesting than what he had to say as a TV star or a chef anyway.

Colicchio’s main point: this wasn’t about some specific charity he was promoting (as these interviews are often pitched) or his specific role as an individual. It was about how the quarantine is exposing problems people like him have been working to change for years — an overly centralized, overly integrated food processing system, razor-thin profit margins for restaurant owners, low wages for essential workers, a healthcare system tied to employment, and government leaning on non-profits to do work government should be doing. As you’ll see, the man knows his stuff and we dive right into it.

So what are leaders in the food community doing to help stop kids from going hungry?

I wouldn’t characterize it as what I’m doing because there’s not a whole lot you can do as an individual right now. Right now New York City, the schools, the school cafeteria workers are feeding kids. [Here’s a bit on FoodCorp’s efforts] Essentially, they’re feeding anyone who shows up for a meal. That’s still happening. They’re not going to the schools to actually eat the meals, but they’re there to pick up food and they can take it home with them. That’s kind of the extent of it. I think more than anything quite frankly, COVID’s exposing just how fragile the system that we have for feeding people is.

Right.

So the bigger question I think is, why do 30 million kids or — I think it’s 22 million kids — the only meal they’re getting in some cases are breakfast and lunch in school? And when we have a crisis of this size it really exposes just how poor the system that we have set up. And typically our government is very happy to let charity step in and fill a void. What you’re seeing now is that charities are completely overrun and soup kitchens that can’t keep up. The need is too great. Volunteers just aren’t stepping up because everybody should be staying inside.

So what have you been working on during this crisis?

The programs that we were working on, we’re struggling to figure out how we can continue them. And we’re a small organization so I imagine every organization is going through this unless you were sitting on a pile of cash. Another non-profit that I work with, Children of Bellevue, they act as advocates for short-term/long term care in Bellevue Hospital. They create programs for the hospital as well. Our big fundraiser was going to be in April. That event last year we raised $700,000. This year we’re not having it. This crisis exposes the idea of government pushing everything to the private sector just doesn’t work.

What are some of the things that you’ve been advocating for?

Universal free lunch at school where it’s not the three-tier model we have now where it’s free, reduced, or full-fare. Where it’s actually free. That the nutrition is much better in school lunches. We, with the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that was signed over the Obama Administration, we actually made school lunch a lot healthier, and this administration is looking to push back on some of those gains. Fighting for that. Making sure that SNAP is much more robust and that doesn’t have so many restrictions. There’s a role for the organizations that are feeding people on the ground, but again, it shouldn’t be funded through charities, it should be funded through government. A lot of the things that we’re talking about are because of poverty and I think right now COVID is kind of exposing the weakness of our entire safety net.

It seems like with the administration now, anytime you promote a program that addresses poverty or unemployment there’s this idea that you’re going to somehow incentivize poverty. Do you have a response to that?

No. Nobody wants to be poor because they need an incentive. This idea that we should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps… People are born with poverty. People struggle because of mental health and addiction. People struggle for various reasons. I used to give talks about this and we always say that a lot of the people in the audience, even though you think you’re solidly middle class, you’re one natural disaster away from being on unemployment. And now we’re here. I mean, 22 million people applied for unemployment so maybe now will be the time for some empathy.

With the exception of a few pilot programs, if you have SNAP you can’t order and have them deliver it like everybody else. Even now when you’re telling people to stay in, they’re still not allowing people to use SNAP and EBT for delivery. You’re not allowed to buy a hot meal. So rotisserie chicken that costs four dollars at Trader Joe’s, you can’t use SNAP for that because it’s a hot meal so there’s value-added so you can’t have that. It’s just ridiculous.

Are you seeing anybody in the government taking up this cause right now?

Well, right now we’re advocating — there’s a lot of people advocating — for a 15% increase to SNAP benefits. So they had loosened up some of the restrictions so more people can apply and make it easier to apply, but we’re asking for a 15% increase. During the American Recovery Act in 2008, they added an additional 13.5%. And then after the Recovery Act ended that got pulled back, so we’re asking 15% more and the Republicans are flat out refusing to do it. Flat out refusing. In these last negotiations for the additional PPP in the CARES Act, Democrats wanted to add some things like 15% for SNAP, but… they kind of lost leverage because the PPP ran out and people were just freaking out that they couldn’t get funding.

It’s just a dumb political football game.

I imagine you fund a lot of charitable work through your hospitality businesses. What are those looking like with the crisis?

Well, we’re closed. And in New York, I have no idea when we’re going to open up. The question isn’t also when our governor says it’s okay to open up. The question is whether or not the public are going to feel safe going to a restaurant. When you think about what you have to do to sanitize a restaurant, well heck, every single person walks in you have to go out there and wipe down the door? I’m a co-founder of an organization called the Independent Restaurant Coalition and we have representation and lobbying for what we’re looking for and it’s just not looking good. PPP is not going to work for restaurants. It works for businesses that are currently open, it doesn’t work for businesses that are closed and forced to close right now. So I don’t know.

The James Beard Foundation did a poll across the country and already 20% of restaurants are saying they will not be able to reopen. And that number is going to grow when the reality sinks in. The problem isn’t even getting the doors open. The problem is what kind of business are we looking at when doors are open? Twenty percent? Thirty percent? That’s not sustainable.

Right.

PPP is not helping. If they change the date of origin to when we open restaurants versus when we actually got the loan for our PPP, that would be helpful. But we’re going to need something past this because I think we’re looking at depressed sales for a good six months to a year.

What are some policy changes that you think could help?

Well during the crisis the big problem with the PPP is that it gives you two months of payroll and rent and utilities, provided you bring back 100% of your full-time employees. Which is fine. The big problem right now is my employees are calling me saying, “Well, you want me to come back to work for two months on your payroll. You’re not going to be open for two months and even if we get open, you’re not going to have a full schedule for me.” Let’s just say, so I get my loan now, I bring all my staff back. I’m not open, right? Plus if they open up a month and a half later, I only have funding for my employees for another two weeks. Then they’re back on unemployment. Because if I open up I’m not going to be opened up to the same level of business I was.

Right.

So if you change the day of origin to when the restaurant opens, then I have two months. They’re on unemployment now, they come off unemployment, we open the doors, and we start working. That’s two months where they’re guaranteed salary. I get some rent paid there. And then the only costs I have running the business are some hard costs and food purchases. So now I have some money to get open and on top of that, we’ll be doing what we call a restaurant stabilization package where it’s going to help replace some of our lost income that we’re going to look at going forward to the next six months.

How are you feeding your staff now?

The majority of my staff’s on unemployment right now. We’re in contact with them. Out of the 470 employees that we laid off, we only heard that 24 of them do not have unemployment. I don’t know how accurate that number is, but that’s the response that we have so far. In New York State, unemployment I think maxes out at $525 a week. If you had the $600 that the federal government’s putting on top of that, restaurant workers are making over $1,000 a week. It’s paying their rent, food, and no one’s really going out so I think right now they’re okay. And they’d rather be working, I’d rather be open, but they’re okay.

We do have a fund that was set up. We sold a bunch of gift certificates, stuff like that. So we’re asking our employees if they have any circumstances where they’re really desperate, let us know if they can’t pay their bills or they’re facing eviction or if they have medical bills or something like that, and we’ll help. We’ll help out the best we can, but restaurants rely on daily cash flow. I made a business decision to lay everyone off, because I was on some phone calls early on and knowing that there was going to be an immediate reaction. The first reaction was going to be unemployment was going get plucked up. So my suggestion to all my staff was to try to apply as quickly as possible, don’t wait.

New York State seems to be handling their claims pretty well, but I hear states like Florida, I heard news stories that only 4% of the claims were actually processed. This, again shows just how if you want to take unemployment and push it out to the states, some states are better than others, some states purposely make it difficult to get unemployment so it deters people from applying. These claims are way up, which is costing a ton of money. And this is the system, keep in mind, that the employee pays into and the employer pays into. States are just taking our money and they’re mismanaging it.

What are some problems you see coming with the food supply chain?

Couple things: in some cases supply is outstripping demand. This is why you’re seeing some dairy farmers just throwing milk out. Because think about it — a lot of the businesses that were buying a ton of food like restaurants and college campuses and schools and stadiums and things like that, they’re shut down now. So some food is being overproduced. So farmers are throwing stuff out.

At the same time, when you see processing plants close because of COVID — and there hasn’t been one. There’s one in San Diego getting all the press, but there have been several others and if they shut down the amount of meat that was going through those plants, eventually it’s going to hit the system and we’re going to start seeing meat shortages.

Again, what this does is really expose, and this goes back to policy, the problems with a highly concentrated, vertically-integrated food system — where one company is producing everything. Companies like Tyson and Smithfield where they have such a stranglehold over the production. What it does is it puts all of your eggs in one basket instead of having it spread out throughout the country. If we’re spread out and these are smaller plants, if one shuts down, it’s not going to have that much of an effect. But because everything is concentrated, it’s going to have a major effect. I think we’ll see that in a couple of weeks.

The other problem you have is with cattle ranchers. The majority of the prime cuts of meat, filet mignon, racks, ribs, and loins, and things like that, most of that stuff goes to restaurants. Restaurants are closed, where is that meat going? Seventy percent of all fish consumed in this country is consumed in restaurants. What are the fishermen doing now? You’re not fishing. You’re not making a living, yet they still got to pay payments on their boats and their slips and all that stuff and they have workers who work for them too.

It’s showing the weakness in food production, how it’s distributed, and then obviously our most vulnerable workers who are now all of a sudden deemed necessary workers who up until two months ago were just low pay workers. I think we need to take a look at how workers are compensated up and down the food chain. They need to look at universal health coverage. When 22 million Americans apply for unemployment, their health insurance is tied to their jobs. They’re going to lose their healthcare. A system where you’re tying healthcare to employment… it’s a bad idea.

In terms of the vertically integrated food system, what are policies there that could improve the way it’s currently done?

Create incentives for local foods. It’s about food sovereignty. It’s about taking back the system so it works for people and not for corporations. And you could do that through tax incentives. One of the bigger problems for regional farmers to grow meat is just there are no slaughterhouses. I’m on Eastern Long Island right now on the Northport and I have two friends who have farms. One just sells chicken and the other one has chicken, pork, and lamb. They’ve got to take their animals and ship them to Canada to get processed. It’s so inefficient because there are no slaughterhouses here. So having small, regional slaughterhouses. They don’t have to be huge so that people don’t want to see these big eyesores, but they can be smaller processing plants run by the USDA so the animals can be slaughtered at a local level and food distribution becomes localized.

If you can incentivize the local producers, is there a way to dis-incentivize the mass corporate consolidation that happens?

You can look at whether or not they’re monopolies. And break them up. We’ve done it before.

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How are you just dealing personally right now?

It’s rough. Number one, laying off as many people as I’ve laid off. In some cases, people who have worked for me for 18 years. But they understand it. Luckily, no one in my organization has died. A few people were sick but had mild cases. And family-wise, only one person in my family had a mild case and she’s doing okay now. Distance learning. I have a nine-year-old and a 10-year-old so distance learning is challenging at times.

Are you taking up the homeschool reins there?

Some of it, yeah. Yeah. I’m in a way busier than I’ve ever been just kind of working with RIC and doing a lot of press hits and things like that so it’s been… I’m keeping myself busy. I’m cooking a ton of food and baking bread and I got my garden started early this year which is nice. So… we’ll see. Yeah.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. Read more of his cooking commentary in UPROXX’s Cooking Battles and Viral Cooking. For past Top Chef Power Rankings, go here.

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