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Where to now, Independent Restaurant Coalition?

The grassroots group born of the pandemic is now expanding its focus beyond advocacy to better support the specific needs of independent operators.
The IRC boasts about 150,000 independent restaurant and bar members. /Photos courtesy of Independent Restaurant Coalition

After Congress failed to re-up the Restaurant Revitalization Fund earlier this year, and the U.S. Small Business Administration claimed the program was out of money, the situation seemed dire for independent restaurant operators.

It also seemed like an unhappy ending for the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), a grassroots organization of chefs and indie operators that had come together for the first time as a unified voice for their very specific segment of the restaurant industry.

With a staff of one (plus a small army of consultants) and co-founders that include celebrity restaurateurs Tom Colicchio, Kwame Onwuachi and Will Guidara, the IRC has spent the past two and a half years blasting a simple message:

Independent restaurants were hit hardest by the pandemic and they need government relief.

That’s still true, said Erika Polmar, the IRC’s executive director.

But, like the very restaurant members the organization seeks to protect, the coalition is evolving to better serve a post-pandemic audience.

The IRC is expanding its focus to become not only an advocacy group, but also a peer-to-peer support system for independent operators across the country, who can so often feel very alone in their daily battle to keep their businesses alive.

“We’re making folks realize that being independent doesn’t mean being alone,” said Polmar.

That has been the motto for the group, which has carved out a position that often overlaps with that of the National Restaurant Association, but uniquely serves the non-chain operator.

“We have a singular audience,” said Polmar.

The National Restaurant Association and state chapters seek to represent the entire restaurant industry, including mom-and-pops but also very large chains and their franchisees, constituents that may have competing interests.

The IRC’s board, on the other hand, is made up exclusively of independent restaurant and bar owners, said Polmar.  Board members include high-profile chef-operators such as Caroline Styne (The Lucques Group), Bobby Stuckey (Frasca Hospitality) and Cheetie Kumar (Garland), for example.

“That’s one thing that sets us apart from so many organizations in this space. We are guided by restaurant owners and operators who are in the thick of it every day, and who are experiencing these problems and challenges first hand,” said Polmar.

Say an operator in the Midwest keeps hearing about the Employee Retention Tax Credit, for example, but he doesn’t have an accounting firm to turn to, said Polmar. Maybe that operator is getting inundated with predatory offers to expedite an application. That operator can come to the IRC for help, where he can be connected to another operator that has navigated the system, said Polmar.

“And we’ll do it for free,” she added. “It’s peer-to-peer support.”

For indie operators, the trauma of the pandemic continues to reverberate, Polmar contends.

“When the RRF first failed to be funded, the crisis phone calls were amazing,” she said. “It became really clear that people wanted help, but they didn’t know where to get it. Maybe we can change that a little bit.”

Polmar doesn’t just mean financial help. She means resources to help with physical and emotional health too.

The IRC, for example, has partnered with BetterHelp, a network of licensed therapists offering services online, which is available for members free for a month.

And coming in October is a series of free seminars that can be watched online live or later on demand.

First there’s Between the Lines, which Polmar described as Oprah meets “Between the Ferns, a series of conversations with authors and IRC members. The first will feature co-founder Guidara being interviewed by Milwaukee chef Dan Jacobs (Dandan) about his upcoming book “Unreasonable Hospitality.”

Another series will be called Sidework Seminars, covering topics like the Employee Retention Tax Credit or how to maintain physical and mental health in restaurant kitchens.

A third series called Heard will attempt to educate consumers and lawmakers about how restaurants are run, touching on topics like debunking some of the myths around third-party delivery.

And, of course, on the advocacy front, there is more work to be done, said Polmar.

A big push for the group over the past two years has been the RRF, which Congress failed to re-up earlier this year. An estimated $180 million remains in the kitty and yet about 177,000 operators who applied for funds have been denied.

The IRC is also lobbying on credit card fee disparities, reauthorization of the Farm Bill and immigration reform to create a visa program for needed workers, for example.

Another current issue is the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL, program. Restaurants are starting to receive SBA repayment notices after a 30-month deferment period, with accrued interest resulting in higher-than-expected bills coming due.

In a March 2022 survey, more than half of independent restaurant and bar operators said their businesses would close within six months without more federal aid. The National Restaurant Association estimates some 90,000 restaurants have closed due to COVID, though that number reflects restaurants of all kinds.

How independent restaurants have been impacted specifically is difficult to nail down. Many independent restaurants have closed, no doubt, and continue to face the ongoing threat of closure with inflation, labor challenges and a potential recession on the horizon.

To Polmar, the IRC’s message now is less about the threat of failure and more about embracing newfound power.

“I think the industry realized how powerful we are when we unite our voices and speak with one voice,” she said. “Now that the industry understands their power and ability to advocate for themselves, you can’t put that back in a box.”

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