What if the Philly restaurant industry was organized enough to hold as much sway over local lawmakers as, say, the building trades, or the city’s universities?
Could some of the hiccups in the rollout of the soda tax have been avoided? Might the Health Department find a way to update its inspection process that puts less stress on kitchen staff and is also easier for diners to interpret? Would officials be more likely to evenly enforce — or even potentially relax — the stringent regulations regarding sidewalk cafes? Could restaurant trash pickup be streamlined so it’s less of a visual blight?
As the local food scene continues to grow and become increasingly central to the city’s identity, a new coalition is forming to help the Philadelphia restaurant industry find strength in numbers.
Called Kitchen Cabinet PHL, the organization is loosely affiliated with the National Restaurant Association’s advocacy group of the same name. However, according to founder Becky Davis, the Philly group is not run by the national association; it’s independent. Membership will be made up of Philly owners, operators and managers — ideally, “all of them.” One of its goals will be figuring out how the diverse assortment can have a hand in shaping local policies that affect the restaurant business. An even more important goal, per Davis, is helping elevate public perception.
“We want to spread the word that we are doing much than just serving great food and drinks,” she said. “We want to connect with elected officials and community leaders and tell the stories of all the good things we are doing.”
As president of the Philly chapter of the PA Restaurant & Lodging Association, Ben Fileccia of Reserve finds himself talking with politicians frequently, and he’s constantly amazed by how little some of them know about the industry. “They hear about the nuisance bars in the districts, or a bad story,” he said, “but they rarely know about all of the restaurants and workers that give back to the community or how much they genuinely care about being a vital part.”
Davis, a 29-year-old Temple grad student who is also a part-time server at Oyster House and previously worked for Garces Group, noted that while restaurants give back to the community in various ways, many are not obvious. Yes, there are several well-publicized fundraising galas and tasting events that raise money for different causes and nonprofits. But the industry does more than just funnel funds to charities. It provides opportunities for re-entry to formerly incarcerated or disadvantaged people, and offers jobs that are accessible to people with less formal education, as well as immigrants or others dealing with language or communication barriers.
“Restaurants are a focal point for issues in immigration, societal re-entry and the minimum wage debate,” said Esha Dev of Saffron Public Relations, who is part of the ad-hoc steering committee Davis assembled to get the organization off the ground.
Dev sees Kitchen Cabinet PHL as a potential bridge between policy-makers and the restaurants, “who are at ground zero in dealing with some of these issues.” The organization could also serve as a critical ally, Dev suggested, in helping city officials implement workforce development or anti-poverty initiatives.
Davis, Dev and fellow steering committee member Marie DiFeliciantonio of Bondfire Media recently met with Councilman Mark Squilla to get a feel for how Philly politicians might perceive their project.
“He seemed excited and eager to work with our group and see it forming,” DiFeliciantonio reported. Squilla is a former bartender, she noted, so that probably helps him relate to the daily pressures running a restaurant presents. Which leads to another reason she thinks Kitchen Cabinet PHL is a much-needed development.
“The restaurant industry is a grueling one,” DiFeliciantonio explained. “It’s hard for chefs and owners to pull themselves outside of the daily grind that it takes to operate successfully. Any number of things — an employee calling out, an equipment malfunction, a delivery showing up late — can put everything else on hold. Because anything can happen at any moment, this industry is laser-focused on the job immediately at hand.”
So even if restaurateurs feel threatened by pending legislation or are frustrated with a longstanding procedure or policy, they often have no recourse, and things slide along without industry input.
Davis is still evaluating how best to structure Kitchen Cabinet PHL. She is considering a monthly newsletter, and will likely build a website presence that offers background on issues, lists related programming, has a calendar of events and provides updates on progress. There’s already a Twitter account, @RestaurantsPHL, and a Facebook page or group is in the works.
As for exactly what issues and projects the organization will focus on at any given time, Davis plans to leave that to the members.
“I’m talking with operators and owners about matters that relate to them,” Davis said. She’s working on a one-sheet that lays out initial goals and objectives, and is planning to send it out with a survey to as many owners and operators as she can find, “from the mom-and-pops to the big restaurant groups.”
Mike Traud, director for Drexel’s Hospitality Management program and instructor in the Drexel Culinary Arts and Science program, is gung-ho about Kitchen Cabinet PHL’s chances of success.
“This organization presents the opportunity to unite members of the industry,” he said. “They’ll be able to discuss current and future issues and ultimately help educate others and effect changes that strengthen and benefit the Philadelphia restaurant community.”