Witnessing government and systemic failures first-hand as a restaurant owner pushed Hong to advocate for food industry workers in Wisconsin's State Legislature.
By Francesca Hong as told to Michele Herrmann
Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.
Francesca Hong was elected as the representative for the Wisconsin State Assembly’s 76th District in November 2020. She is also the first Asian American to serve in the state’s legislature. She is the co-owner of Morris Ramen in Madison and cofounder of the Culinary Ladies Collective, a professional women’s network in Wisconsin.
The pandemic did play a large role in my decision to run for the state assembly. And I think it was the first time that I experienced a grief that was uncontrollable, like so many of us, and falling into that deep grief and deep fear, that feeling of helplessness.
I felt compelled to have a strong, progressive working-class voice, to build coalitions between labor and small business again, between the understanding that we can only move forward as a multiracial coalition. The restaurant industry was also reckoning with the fact that it has an immense number of disparities, and that we have not been sustainable for a very long time.
When COVID hit, I think there was a deeper understanding of the need for mental health support in the industry, and outside of it—the fact that different industries really cannot operate alone. The need for partnerships and aid to the restaurant industry was clear.
We as a restaurant couldn’t operate without community connections and an understanding of the nonprofit industry and mutual aid networks. That was very apparent in the Madison community, and I don’t think it was being given enough credit. There were a lot of people, especially in our industry, that were having problems navigating the unemployment system—myself included.
As a business owner, I wasn’t just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, but also to really help my employees navigate that system, and to figure out how we were going to both support our staff as well as ensure that they would have a safer environment to work in.
We found refuge in finding a new purpose for our workers—turning our restaurant into a community kitchen and using our PPP funds to hire them back.
We paid our workers to make meals for the community, while shifting to delivery and carry-out, and ensuring that every partner in Cook It Forward was compensated equitably.
We were closed from March 17, 2020, until the first week of May. I announced my candidacy on Mother’s Day.
I think restaurant workers are inherently committed to care. What that looks like, and how it’s defined, should be connected to politics. Income disparities, housing, public transportation—what directly impacts the service industry workforce impacts the workforce across Wisconsin too.
As a member of the minority Democratic party, we aren’t always the governing group. We work within a legislature that is run by authoritarian Republican rule. My job, as a member of the working class and in the hospitality industry, is to really help people see that all of our issues are connected, and that our communities are caring for each other when our politicians are leaving us behind. Not only do I deeply want to understand what you’re going through, but—as a restaurant owner, a restaurant worker, a mom—I already have experienced what you have as well.
In Green Bay, with State Representative Kristina M. Shelton and State Senator Chris Larson, we introduced the “Healthy School Meals for All” Act. It will reimburse Wisconsin public and private schools who qualify for the free breakfast and free lunch program, and extend the federal reimbursement. It guarantees, regardless of ability to pay, that every child in a Wisconsin school has a healthy breakfast and lunch during the school year. This is something that was deeply personal to me as a member of the food service industry—that we made this legislation not only for our children, but also for our food industry workers, our farmers, and the broader food service ecosystem.
We introduced a bill that will give grants to Wisconsin counties for down payments on homes that would extend to those who qualify under the federal poverty level. We also introduced the Due Diligence Act, which would help prevent evictions by requiring both landlords and tenants to apply for federal rental relief prior to the landlord issuing an eviction notice. One of the first resolutions we introduced was the Economic Justice Bill of Rights, which is really a toolkit of our progressive values. We view it as a message that all Wisconsinites—regardless of what industry they’re in—have a right to affordable housing, high quality healthcare, and accessible public education, and should live free of discrimination regardless of their background.
Currently, I’m the only Asian-American legislator in the entire state legislature, so it’s important for me to increase visibility for our community. We were able to have Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month recognized statewide, and we’re trying to push for including education about Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans and Hmong Americans in the Wisconsin Public Schools curriculum.
At Morris Ramen, I’m more behind the scenes with the administrative work, which allows me to have a more flexible schedule and work after the “day job.” Then I cover on the line or on the front of the house when we have family members who need a break. I think I’m fortunate to be able to have both, and even if I can’t balance it all the time, there’s a finality to working in a shift at a restaurant that I don’t get at a day job.
The food industry labor shortage is a very clear signal that we need to be making long-term investments in our workers. As restaurant owners and operators, we need support from policymakers to do that. We have to have the tools to offer the types of benefits that other careers have. We need to ensure that our workers see that a career in the restaurant industry is possible and sustainable, and that we are committed to the holistic well-being of our workers.
You’re seeing a lot of women leave the service industry because it’s difficult to find childcare during the hours that restaurants operate. It might be an early bakery shift that starts at 3 a.m. It might be an evening shift that starts at four and ends at midnight. And buses aren’t always running then, and there isn’t always childcare. So by investing in that care infrastructure, there are definitely policies that are gaining support.
I represent the most engaged district in the state. They have been so gracious in sharing with me all that they know that’s happening at the political level, whether it be city, county, or federal, and they always want to know what we can do because their representative is in the minority party. And my answer is to build coalitions.
We tell people that we are fighting for a lot of the things that we all need in this state—even if we may not share all of the core values—and that our office and Governor Tony Evers are absolutely fighting for a more equitable Wisconsin, which is going to propel us forward.
Photo: Hillary Schave.