food politics

Trump’s Restaurant Panel Isn’t Going to Help

Sean Feeney, an owner of Lilia and Misi, told President Donald Trump, “We view you as one of us.” Photo: CNBC/Youtube

It’s possible that you’ve forgotten that Trump’s restaurant panel exists. Who, really, knows what’s going on right now, and also why bother when every day is like every other day? If that’s the case, Grub Street has a surprise for you: This week’s White House roundtable provided a very clear reminder that the restaurant panel is not, in fact, going to make anything better.

Since the coronavirus pandemic wiped out almost the entire restaurant industry, owners and workers have been sounding the alarm bells. Speaking to Grub in April, chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio said, “People don’t know how bleak it really is.” It’s gotten especially bleak for chefs like Omar Tate — who runs the acclaimed Honeysuckle pop-up, and who wrote in Esquire that “pop-ups don’t get bailed out” — and for black business owners. The funny thing is, the panel doesn’t seem to be helping anyone at the moment.

Ostensibly created as a direct line for operators to talk with Trump about their problems and needs during the pandemic, the panel was criticized for a buffet of reasons upon its announcement. Watching this roundtable was an immediate reminder of those criticisms: It is merely an assortment of fast-food executives and fine-dining chefs who do not come close to representing the diverse voices of the entire industry, and no voice in the room represents labor. (Colicchio tells the Washington Post that “we wanted a woman [on the panel], and they said no.”)

But here’s the thing: What difference would it make who’s on the panel if, at the end of the day, they still have to negotiate with Trump and his cronies, who have proven time and again to have little regard for the small businesses and actual workers that make up the hospitality industry. What was needed wasn’t a better panel, because there is no better version of this restaurant panel. When the panel was announced, Thomas Keller said he was “honored” to be part of the group, but as Max Falkowitz wrote for Grub in April, “I’d be tickled by Keller’s pablum, as if there is anything productive to be gained from collaborating with this regime of robber barons.”

Comments made during the roundtable did not help. (The transcript is available on the White House website.) Some of those came from Sean Feeney, an owner of Brooklyn’s wildly popular Lilia and Misi restaurants, who managed to justify everyone’s skepticism in a single sentence. Responding to a Trump comment about the president’s friends loving the restaurant industry, Feeney said, “We view you as one of us.” Responding to Insider, Feeney clarified his statement, explaining that he views “everyone as the same.” He added that his son’s middle name is King — for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (According to an email obtained by the website, Feeney also downplayed the risk of the coronavirus to his staff.)

Maybe Feeney, a former Goldman Sachs bond trader, or one of the other chefs like Thomas Keller or Landry’s CEO and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta do view Trump as one of them. But who is that “we,” exactly? Does that we include employees of his who come from marginalized communities, or are undocumented as, presumably, some of his employees may be? Does it include the working class and impoverished people in the industry, who have been hurt by Trump’s policies and failed by his administration’s botched response to this pandemic? Feeney also told Trump that “the immediate and coordinated response by your administration to support out-of-work employees was inspiring, and it should make us all proud to be Americans.” It would be interesting to hear whether Feeney’s own out-of-work employees are proud of the government’s response.

Trump did his usual thing during the panel, liberally using some of his favorite words (tremendous, big) and cracking jokes about bringing Democrats and Republicans together and Lilia not needing any financial assistance. Concerns were raised about the PPP loans — which have been widely criticized, including by workers who say they’re being forced back to work for unlivable wages — including by Thomas Keller, who was also made to answer inane questions from Trump about fancy butter. When Keller explained at one point that butter changes flavor and color with the seasons, Trump responded, “That’s fantastic.” If this is the level of discourse we can expect from this panel, “fantastic” certainly isn’t going to be the word workers will use to describe its effectiveness.

Trump’s Restaurant Panel Isn’t Going to Help