Chef-owner Moon Krapugthong (bottom middle) with staff at Chabaa Thai

Chef-owner Moon Krapugthong (bottom middle) with staff at Chabaa Thai

Danya Henninger

The Day Without Immigrants was ‘all anyone was talking about’ in Philly

It was the topic of conversation in restaurants citywide — and that was the point.

danya

More than four dozen Philly restaurants actively participated in the “Day Without Immigrants” on February 16, either by closing entirely, shutting down for part of the day or curtailing services.

Philadelphia is home to several thousand restaurants, so upwards of 50 of them doesn’t constitute a very large percentage. But for a grassroots movement that had no central organizer and was spread nationwide entirely through word of mouth and social media, the level of participation was notable.

It was enough to make the topic conspicuously unavoidable to anyone following the news — TV, print, online and radio outlets all covered the action with updates throughout the day.

And that was essentially the point.

The underlying premise of the “Day Without” campaign was to highlight immigrants’ economic impact by showing what life would be like without their contributions to society. A recent report by advocacy group New American Economy estimated immigrants make up more than 10 percent of the Philly metro area’s population, forming a cohort that paid $1.7 billion in state and local taxes in 2014.

But participants and supporters of the February 16 action felt its real mission had less to do with money than with forcing conversation about the topic — which it undoubtedly did, both among restaurant owners and their patrons.

“It’s all anyone was talking about [on that day],” said Jose Pistola’s co-owner Joe Gunn.

“I think it was really successful,” said Moon Krapugthong, the chef-owner of Yanako, Chabaa Thai and Binto who immigrated to the US from Thailand 25 years ago. She estimated having taken a loss of more than $4,000 in business by closing her three Manayunk restaurants, but felt it was worthwhile. “It showed the unity and solidarity and it voiced the concern.”

She was surprised and pleased by the turnout: “I’d heard about the campaign for a week, but I never imagined that it could be this big.”

Hungry Pigeon co-owners Pat O’Malley and Scott Schroeder were also impressed with the scale of action. The duo, who are hosting a pair of sold-out dinners benefitting the ACLU later this month, had discussed potentially shutting down in solidarity, but ended up opening at the usual 7 a.m. time. By early afternoon, after watching the growing surge of support, they decided participation was the way to go, and at 2:45 p.m. they closed for the night.

“Yes, we lost out on sales, but that wasn’t what we cared about,” O’Malley said. “We have very few non-American-born employees here, but felt it was important to make a statement anyway.”

Hasta mañana

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Standard Tap, which closed its kitchen for the day and pledged to donate one-fifth of bar revenue to the ACLU of Pa, only pulled in around half its normal Thursday in February sales, according to co-owner Dolly Das. But pinpointing the specific income loss wasn’t important to her or her partners, she said.

“We wanted to support the nationwide effort to draw attention to unfair immigration policies,” Das explained, “and specifically to the Trump administration’s intent to target certain ethnic and religious groups.”

“When my people said they would be willing to sacrifice, I joined them,” said Carol Mickey, who closed Sam’s Morning Glory Diner for the entire day.

Not all restaurateurs felt the same. “I don’t get it,” said one chef-owner, who is himself an immigrant from Mexico.

“Our mayor has spoken openly about how he loves immigrants and how he’s gonna fight to keep Philly a sanctuary city,” he said. “By not showing up to work or not spending money it’s almost like saying, ‘Screw you, Philly,’ when now, more than ever, we need city taxes.”

Another immigrant restaurant owner, this one from Europe, expressed similar doubts.

“My kids said no Latino students showed up for school on that day. So what?” he asked rhetorically. “How does that help immigrants?” Reminded that he was — as several others were — still talking about the topic more than a week after the action, he reluctantly conceded that it may have had a lasting effect.

The day also spurred the first recent comments on their immigrant staff from several celebrity restaurateurs, including Stephen Starr and Jose Garces.

“It’s sad that it has come to this,” Starr told Billy Penn on Feb. 14, two days before the walkout. “These are really dedicated, hard working people who make America better. They should not have to live in fear.”

As noted on the digital flyers that circulated in advance of Feb. 16, there is a second “Day Without Immigrants” planned for May 1. And getting more restaurant owners on board, especially big-name ones, is part of the mission organizers have given themselves.

“It’s good that it falls on a Monday, because that’s most restaurants’ slowest day,” said Ben Miller, co-owner of South Philly Barbacoa with his wife Cristina Martinez.

The couple recently hosted a community town hall to gather supporters and make a plan of action. What they came up with was this:

Their group will decorate a series of collection boxes and hand them out to interested restaurants around the city. Those boxes will collect donations to be used to cover the cost of paying employees for a day, making it easier for owners to decide to participate on May 1.

Instead of being open to the public on that day, then, the restaurants can contribute to a series of public pot-luck dinners Miller and Martinez are trying to help organize.

“Chefs can bring dishes to share and other people who are home cooks can also bring dishes, and we will have speakers and information in continuing solidarity action,” Miller said. He intends to work with industry advocacy group ROC United to maintain a list of participating restaurants, “to throw some business their way and incite more conversation over the dinner table.”

Krapugthong of Chabaa Thai wasn’t sure if she would close again on May 1. “I have to catch up on my business,” she said. “It is not easy at all. Payroll, food cost, overhead have all gone up. My income has dropped.”

However, “I cannot give up, because I believe in this country,” she added.

“This is the land of opportunity.”

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