In his 12-plus years as a chef, Hungry Pigeon co-owner Scott Schroeder has done dozens of collaboration dinners. He can’t think of one that came together as quickly as this.
On March 2, Schroeder’s Queen Village restaurant will host an event called “Sit Down and Eat to Stand Up for Change.”
Billed as a fundraiser to “stand in solidarity for civil rights,” from which all proceeds will be donated to the ACLU, the Hungry Pigeon dinner features food made by chefs at nine different restaurants and drinks donated by seven breweries, spirits makers and wine distributors. With all the moving parts, the whole thing took less than a week to organize.
“Everyone we asked was eager to participate and donate things,” Schroeder told Billy Penn. “It was effortless.”
In a way few other circumstances have, Donald Trump’s maneuvers in the first few weeks of his presidency have spurred the Philly hospitality industry to action.
Combined with his order stripping “Sanctuary Cities” like Philadelphia of federal funding if they don’t work with immigration officials on deportation, Trump’s order restricting travel from seven countries and revoking tens of thousands of visas was especially galvanizing.
“I love a good Facebook argument as much as the next person, but it doesn’t really do much,” said Schroeder, explaining how he and Cheu Noodle Bar co-owner Ben Puchowitz came up with the idea for the event. “We wanted to do something that actually helped.”
Tickets to the dinner run $100 per person and include all food and drink. (Note: As of 2 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 6, both seatings had sold out.)
For Philadelphians distraught by the Administration’s policies, going out for a nice meal can be a welcome distraction. But for chefs, restaurateurs and others in the business, it’s work — work that depends heavily on immigrant labor.
“Like many restaurants in the US, Le Virtù operates on a daily basis thanks to the dedication and hard work of immigrants,” said co-owner Francis Cratil Cretarola.
The entire kitchen staff currently working under chef Joe Cicala at the East Passyunk destination is comprised of people from Mexico, he noted, and the restaurant has also relied on employees born in Nicaragua, Canada and Italy.
So Le Virtù has also put together a fundraising dinner.
Slated to take place on March 15, the “Sanctuary Supper” will feature dishes from both Cicala and Mexico-born sous chef Poli Sanchez. Seats run $120 per person, including wine, and funds will be donated to PAUWR (Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights), the organization founded by Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez.
Miller and Martinez, owners of renowned taqueria South Philly Barbacoa, have emerged as spokespeople for the rights of immigrant restaurant workers — especially those who, like Martinez, are undocumented. In the coming year, they plan to take their #right2work dinner series national.
Across the US, “eating and drinking places” employ approximately 1.8 million foreign-born people, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number ends up meaning at least 20 percent of a restaurant’s staff is made up of immigrants, on average. In big cities like Philadelphia that number swells to something like 70 percent, according to national nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC). Of those, at least one in 10 is estimated to be undocumented.
“The restaurant industry is one of the largest employers of immigrants in the nation,” said Sheila Maddali, co-director of ROC’s Pennsylvania branch and co-director of ROC’s national Tipped Worker Resource Center.
She described her organization as “an alternative to the National Restaurants Association” trade group, leaders of which recently said they were “looking forward to working with” President Trump on E-Verify.
“There’s no way to talk about the industry without talking about immigrants — of both documented and undocumented status,” Maddali said.
Based in West Philly, Maddali has recently taken on an additional role at ROC: She’s the national spokesperson for the new Sanctuary Restaurants project.
A grassroots movement
Folks at ROC had been organizing a response to Trump’s stated anti-immigrant policies even before he took office. One of these, developed in conjunction with Latinx advocacy group Presente, was the idea to form a coalition of “sanctuary restaurants.” A website was put up in advance of a planned February 13 launch — and it immediately took on a life of its own.
By January 20, with no official promotion, more than 65 venues around the country had signed on as Sanctuary Restaurants. News began to spread via word of mouth, and by the time an AP article mentioning the project was published five days later, the number of members stood at 80. It’s now over 200, and growing fast.
In contrast to cities like Chicago (29) and New York (26), only four Philly restaurants currently appear on the Sanctuary Restaurants list of participants (South Philly Barbacoa and El Compadre, Girard and South).
Part of why the Philly figure is low is likely because there hasn’t been any kind of marketing to get the word out. Six out of seven restaurateurs Billy Penn contacted this week had never before heard of the project at all — although several said they were glad to be made aware of it and would look into joining.
But another reason is probably because in today’s political climate, “sanctuary” has become a loaded word.
“If I join that group, am I basically admitting to hiring undocumented immigrants and opening myself up to prosecution?” one restaurant owner asked.
Absolutely not, said Maddali. Unlike cities, hospitals or religious or educational institutions, individual businesses do not have have legal precedent for refusing to comply with federal mandates, she noted. And the Sanctuary Restaurants movement does not ask them to.
“It’s about a broader use of the term,” Maddali said. “It’s about creating safer spaces by adopting policies with zero tolerance for discrimination with regard to race, nationality, religion, documentation status, gender, gender identity or gender expression.”
After the project kicks off on February 13, ROC will be hosting in-person and online educational seminars to help restaurateurs understand and navigate policy initiatives. It will run an emergency text line for workers who need immediate aid in dealing with legal or discriminatory situations.
There’s also a consumer-focused component to the movement.
More than 500 regular folks — people who don’t work in the industry — have signed up on the Sanctuary Restaurant website so far, and Maddali is confident the movement will resonate with many more.
“The Sanctuary Restaurant designation and placard in the window will help people know that the owners believe in taking a stand against hate, harassment and discrimination,” she explained.
“We’re going to help direct consumer power,” she said. “It’s like the opposite of a boycott.”