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Boka Group’s Kevin Boehm And Rob Katz On Organizing To Protect Restaurants

Advocating, educating, and reaching out to everyone in hospitality about what needs to be done—and fast.

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Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz are the founders and owners of Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group, which numbers some of the city’s best-known chefs across its 23 restaurant spaces. They’ve also been an early driving force in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as board members in the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

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KEVIN BOEHM: Everybody’s writing this playbook as we go. There is no YouTube video for how to handle a restaurant during a global pandemic. One of the things that Rob and I did was to start to organize our thoughts, along with the new Independent Restaurant Coalition, about what we really need in a stimulus bill. There were three things we knew restaurants needed. One is loans for restaurants and small businesses to get money right away. Two is money to reopen restaurants, because there’s a cost specifically to reopening them. And then three—none of us are going to open up our restaurants at 100 percent. There’s going to be a ramp-up period. So we need forgiveness on rent, on payroll, on utilities, on health insurance that allows the restaurants to have a ramp-up period and to figure out how to open and not lose money.

ROB KATZ: When this was all starting to happen, we saw that it was inevitable we were going to close, whether the mandate to close came or not. One of the most important things for Kevin and I was to make sure we had jobs for our 1,800 employees on the other side of this thing. And that’s a scary thought, because when the spigot gets turned off on your cash flow, things get really, really scary really quickly. No matter how big you are or small you are, no one is immune to it, because we don’t sit on mountains of cash. We all work on very small margins. We really wanted to make sure we could keep every single person on health insurance at least through the month of April. And we wanted to make sure that we would have jobs for all of these people that we furloughed. That was so critical to us.

We were very fortunate we were able to secure funding to get us through this time. We really wanted to become incredibly fluent on what this stimulus bill meant to us and to everybody else. It’s the natural impulse to look out for yourself and for your family. But in precarious times like this, when so many people are living paycheck to paycheck, we all have to have some humanity. We have to think more globally for the greater good, and anything we can do to help pass the word along as to what we’ve learned from this bill, we’re doing it all the time.

KEVIN: I think it helped that the community was so strong in Chicago. Everybody here mobilized pretty quickly and started sharing best practices. We’re relatively close as a restaurant community. It’s revelry more than rivalry here. If you look at some of the larger groups, we have a fantastic relationship with One-Off Hospitality, with Lettuce Entertain You. We talk a lot. There’s a lot of small restaurants, small groups, that we have very close relationships with. I think the whole city operates that way. As soon as this started happening, everybody got on their phones and started texting and talking.

ROB: This was the asteroid that came and hit our earth, the thing that you were just never expecting. I think leadership is very important at times like this. But truth be told, Kevin and I have never seen anything like this. We’ve gone through many financial disasters, natural disasters. But this was something entirely different. You’re standing on that high diving board, and you’re looking down, and you’re like, “Oh my God, we have to make some very, very, very tough decisions.”

It became quite evident the week leading up to the closure that people just weren’t feeling safe and comfortable. Business had fallen off 32 or 33 percent, and it was time to make a decision. We fully embrace the decision to close. Probably it should have been made sooner.

This crisis is rooted in biology, not economics. But the effects are going to be felt economically for so many years to come. It’s how we all embrace one another and help one another to get through this when we do get to the other side. Kevin and I and our entire team, we’re doing everything we can to be prepared for it, because we know it’s coming. This isn’t a light-switch moment. We will be turned on, but it’s going to be turned on with a dimmer. We’re not going to open our doors and be at 100 percent capacity. And we don’t want to open our doors until we feel the math and science of this thing is real. We’re not looking at a beautiful date to open here. We’re looking at a date to open when it’s safe for our staff to come in, safe to our customers to come in.

KEVIN: On a very personal level, sometimes you have a crisis happen within a crisis. My mom passed away 10 days ago. That happened at the same time that this was going on. So me being in my hometown with my mom while Rob was dealing with this at the same time… it was trying, to say the very least. Like with Floyd Cardoz’s passing away, I think that brought another dimension of emotion to this for everybody who hadn’t yet been touched that way.

ROB: There’s a lot of people that are scared, and they’re hurting. We do realize a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. All we want to make sure is that we can help. Our team came together in such a magical way because there are some people in our company who have babies, and they don’t have enough money for diapers or formula. We mobilized very quickly to make sure they’re okay. We’re sending out Postmates, we’re delivering food to those who need it the most. We did start a GoFundMe page, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have been incredibly generous. We are trying to find people in our company with immediate needs. It’s been really special to see our team come together to make sure people are taken care of the best we can in these tough times.

KEVIN: In times like these, your character is not defined—your character is revealed. I think a lot of people within our company showed a lot of character. The people that have been with us for a long, long time—and we have many of them.

ROB: Not every single person in our industry is economically savvy. We need to help to get the word out how people in the restaurant industry can get their hands on the stimulus. Are they going to be talking to the Small Business Administration directly, or talking to their bank, their lenders? They have to educate themselves on what they’re eligible for. This stimulus really is a lifeline. We are literally staring down the barrel of once-in-a-lifetime unemployment. We’re still trying to understand the size of the hole the virus is going to blow in our local economy and the global economy. We have to make sure we get the word out to everyone we can. There is help, and this help is going to really do some good for the hospitality industry.

KEVIN: One of the goals of the Independent Restaurant Coalition was to strategize beforehand to help shape the stimulus bill. But we also need to help strategize how to use this bill. We can keep this restaurant business alive. We think that saving restaurants is really important. It’s such a fabric of our society, from the way we connect to how many people it actually employs in a country—16 million people. It’s a $1 trillion industry when you add up all the different sources. That’s like 4 percent of the GDP of the United States of America. It’s really incredible.