An In-Depth Look at Trump’s Meeting with Restaurant Owners

In the wake of the coronavirus economic crisis that’s crippling the restaurant industry, an historic meeting took place at The White House. President Trump gathered Cabinet members, the VP, and several restaurant owners including Thomas Keller, Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park, and Tilman Fertitta, the billionaire sole proprietor of Landry’s Inc., for a discussion about what the industry needs to survive. Here’s a more in-depth and objective look at what transpired, and, surprisingly, not every moment was cringe-worthy.

President Trump addresses representatives of the restaurant industry at The White House on May 18, to discuss the financial impact of the coronavirus (Screenshot of C-SPAN coverage | CulEpi)

Yes, there were times when Trump stroked his ego, or went off the rails, or seemed glib. At other times however, one could see the genuine frustration Trump feels about the huge hit the industry – and the economy as a whole – has had to endure. Whether he cares about the plight of individuals may be debatable, he nevertheless seemed very concerned about the economic impact of the coronavirus.

Representing diverse businesses – everything from two restaurants to the nationwide Panera chain – these owners and CEOs presented a strong, united front gathered around the table. As a side note, it was a bit disappointing that all the industry representatives were men. I’m not sure why this was the case, women do own a lot of restaurants (my mom was a restaurateur herself). Perhaps no female restaurant owner wanted to meet with Trump? Go figure.

In any case, the main point was to push for an extension of PPP from eight weeks to twenty-four weeks, as many restaurants have been able to secure PPP funds, yet have not been able to spend them to hire back workers because they’re simply not allowed to reopen yet.

José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International (which includes Burger King and Popeyes), began the discussion by praising the CARES Act and the PPP, but placed an emphasis on the need for a PPP extension to 24 weeks. He also pointed to the somewhat contentious notion of limited liability for owners and corporations. He took things further and stated the need for “additional federal assistance targeted to the restaurant industry” and mentioned how restaurants only received 9% of PPP funds.

Melvin Rodriguez, President of Galatoire’s, noted in his statement, “The very nature of restaurants in general, we rely on social interaction, it makes us very unique, and we were hit hard pretty quickly and it’s going to make our comeback really difficult.” He went on to say that while in Louisiana he can reopen at 25% capacity due to social distancing restrictions, “25% capacity is tough. To think that when we reopen at 25% capacity we’ll lose more money than last week because now we’re going to incur expenses.”

Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park noted he was a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which he said represents everything from mom-and-pop pizza places and diners to Michelin 3-star restaurants, “and everything in between…the things that represent the cultural fabric of our cities and of our towns, and the things that I believe as a country we need to fight to keep. We also represent the eleven million people that work in those restaurants across the country.”

Will Guidara Co-Owner of Eleven Madison Park / Make It Nice hospitality group, at The White House, spoke movingly about the challenges facing restaurants during COVID-19 (Screenshot of C-SPAN coverage | CulEpi)

Guidara went on to say, “It’s clear that this Administration cares about our industry and it’s also clear all of you understand the extent to which we are more specifically vulnerable than a lot of other industries in America, and I think that’s why we’re here today, and it’s important to acknowledge that and say thank you.”

Again the emphasis was put on the 24-week extension. “If those changes are made such that people can spend that money and know it’ll be forgiven, that’s really important for restaurants to re-open…” Guidara gave a nod to the proposed Restaurant Stabilization Fund, though not , saying, “But we need something more than that, that is specific to independant restaurants, something that will allow restaurants to stay open.”

One out of four people who filed for unemployment were restaurant people. One out of four. That’s just insane.

Will Guidara, Co-Owner Eleven Madison Park

Marvin Irby, CFO of National Restaurant Association, went on to make his statement, adding that, “The PPP would be a god-send if we could make one change, if we could extend the time that we need, that we have, to spend the proceeds. In too many communities today, the 8-week period is simply not enough time.”

Trump asked, “So how much time do you want?”

“Twenty-four weeks,” replied Irby.

Seemingly incredulous, Trump pressed, “How about 30 weeks? How about 75? I know a couple of you guys in this room, you’d never stop…”

Then Trump asked the question with the seriousness it deserves, he turned to Will Guidara, who confirmed twenty-four weeks. Guidara then added that the deadline be extended from June 30th to October 31st.

Niren Chaudhary, CEO of Panera Bread, on top of his reiteration of the importance of a PPP extension, made a poignant statement. “I believe the health crisis has become an economic crisis…and a humanitarian crisis with about 54 million Americans fighting hunger.” Chaudhary said he believes opening up the economy is the right thing to do, but, he added,“I also believe it’s important that we as leaders step up and do the right thing at this time.”

Chef Tim Love weighed in, “We’re not asking for more money, we just need more time to spend it the way it was intended, to take care of our employees as we open up.” He also said there should be flexibility to spend more than 25% on rent, and he specifically mentioned NYC where rents are so high. This added request went unanswered.

Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of Landry’s, made a plea for a portion of PPP to be set aside for restaurant owners who have more than 500 employees (he has 60,000 employees across 600 restaurants).

Tilman Fertitta, CEO and sole proprietor of Landry’s Inc, owns more than 600 restaurants, at The White House, spoke of the need for some PPP funds to be set aside for large-scale restaurant owners (Screenshot of C-SPAN coverage | CulEpi)

“I’m a sole proprietor but I do four-billion in revenue, and I would have been ‘that billionaire that took the money from the little business.’ So I couldn’t take that PPP money, and I took so much criticism because I was the first person that laid off 40,000 employees… I wanted to put 40,000 people back to work May 1st, but I couldn’t take from PPP, so I couldn’t put those people back to work.”

He said he borrowed $300mil but it wasn’t enough to bring back all his employees.

Then, rather than address Tilman’s concerns, Trump went off on a red herring and asked Fertitta about basketball. Tilman owns the Houston Rockets.

Tilman finally steered the conversation back to the issue at hand, and also expressed concerns over ludicrously high rent, saying “I’m the largest operator in New York for full service restaurants and we’ve got to talk about the million dollar leases.”

That went ignored.

Sean Feeney, co-founder and co-owner (with chef Missy Robbins) of Grovehouse (restaurants Lilia and Misi) had perhaps the most interesting interaction with Trump, which began by reading from a prepared statement.

“The intention of PPP to support small business and restaurants was pragmatic and encouraging, we all agree, it wasn’t perfect. But, we’re working on it, to fix it, so that it could help us. But we need those fixes now. Like me, I have it, but I can’t use it. I’m in the clock zone of 8 weeks. PPP is a bridge…”

Trump cut him off with a question, “So you agree with the others in terms of the timing?”

Feeney replied, “Yes, immediately, it must happen.”

Trump followed up, “So you agree with the number, 24 weeks?”

Feeney, “Yes. Absolutely.”

Trump then chuckled, asking, “Did you guys meet before this or something? Did you have a little meeting to discuss this?” Others in the room laughed along with Trump, but Feeney, who was on camera where I was watching on C-SPAN, did not laugh. Instead, he tried to reply with the seriousness the discussion deserved.

Sean Feeney, Co-Owner and business partner to Chef Missy Robbins, maintains a straight face in a challenging moment, as Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia looks on (Screenshot of C-SPAN coverage | CulEpi)

“What is incredible about this Independent Restaurant Coalition, this did not exist seven weeks ago. Restaurant owners didn’t talk to each other, ever. And, we were able to….”

Again Trump interrupted, a bit like a class clown, adding, “I bring people together. You’ve seen that in government. I bring the Democrats and Republicans together…”

Feeney looked dismayed but undaunted, not even cracking a smile, saying, “It’s been a beautiful thing, we’ve been able to talk…”

Trump spoke over him, “I’m only kidding. Go ahead.”

Feeney had already gone ahead, “…we’ve been able to be creative, and to figure out ways to bring this industry back.”

Speaking over him yet again, Trump continued, this time finally retreating to a more serious tone. “That’s great. I think it’s great. You got together, and a lot of good suggestions have been made, and it’s been made uniformly, so we really know what your opinion is. That’s really great.”

Feeney continued reading his statement, and mentioned, though again not with specificity, the Restaurant Stabilization Fund. “In an effort to keep those doors open and to keep our people employed, we propose a stabilization plan and we look forward to discussing more in the future with you. Thank you very much.”

They finished with a genial exchange about Feeney’s background as a bond trader and about loving the restaurant business.

Feeney said to Trump, “We view you as one of us.” A controversial and really rather inaccurate comment as the industry definitely does not all share this view.

Trump then turned to Treasury Secretary Mnuchen and asked if he was working on an extension for PPP and Mnuchen said yes, but perhaps not twenty-four weeks, and added that the idea had bi-partisan support.

The last restaurateur to speak was the legendary Thomas Keller, America’s only chef to own two Michelin 3-star restaurants.

Keller began by saying, “How proud we are to be sitting here at The White House, in your home, to be able to share some of our struggles and hopes and aspirations.”

Chef Thomas Keller addressing President Trump at The White House meeting with restaurant industry owners and executive

Then he went off script and doubled back. “Did we have a meeting before? Yes, we had a meeting before. Did we talk about it? Certainly we talked about it. Because we want to be unified. Whether you have 650 restaurants, two restaurants, six restaurants, or 1,000 restaurants, it doesn’t really matter, we all are nurturers at heart, and we want our restaurants to reopen so that we can nurture our guests, our communities, and finally our country.”

Keller related his own personal experience with PPP, and he said how he could not spend the funds yet because he hasn’t been able to reopen. Trump asked why he couldn’t reopen, and where his restaurants were.

Keller told him they were in California, New York, Las Vegas, and South Florida. Trump then spoke of the Mayor of Los Angeles, how he proposed not reopening the city until August 30th, and Keller said he didn’t know because his restaurant is in Napa.

Trump took the opportunity to emphasize how he felt about not reopening until the end of August.

“That’s a death wish,” said Trump. “Because there’s death on both sides. You know that. There’s death on both sides, it’s not just a one-way street.”

Keller spoke of his consumer products division and how he’s been able to hire back 100% of his staff and is doing very well there, and he thanked Trump for acting so fast to help in that regard. “But… on the other side with restaurants, it’s a little more complicated.”

He then spoke about a small farm he works with to source all the butter for his restaurants, how that farmer isn’t producing any butter now, just one example of how restaurants impact a huge supply chain, as well as the entire economy.

“The impact restaurants have in our communities, in our states and in our country, is extraordinary.”

Keller closed with a moving commentary about the industry.

“We don’t really care about your education, we’re not concerned about where you come from, or your religious beliefs. We are open to everybody. We employ the most women beside everybody but the federal government, the most single parent women. It’s just extraordinary how much we embrace our entire country.”

Whatever can be said about Trump, and I’ve said a lot, I commend him for calling this meeting, but he needs to follow through. As someone who has urged the industry to get politically active and stand up for change long before the coronavirus, this meeting was nevertheless a welcome shift from the norm of Washington ignoring the needs of the industry and its workers. And whether or not you think these industry representatives were overly commendatory, they projected a level professionalism and respect that the President himself could learn from.

Of course, we don’t know yet if the suggested 24-week extension will be implemented, we don’t know if a restaurant stabilization fund (today proposed by Representative Earl Blumenauer) will ever become a reality, but we do know that, finally, Washington is listening, and that’s a direct result of you all making your voices heard. So let’s keep up the pressure, let’s not lose the momentum, and let’s not let up until we see results!

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