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From Florida Politician To Pandemic Restaurateur

After close to two decades in state politics, Chris Smith has a special perspective on running a family business.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Chris Smith is owner of Smitty’s Wings, a sports-bar restaurant in the Sistrunk neighborhood of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Smith is also a former member of the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate. He spent 16 years as a Florida lawmaker and is now working to navigate the politics and the policies of running a restaurant during a pandemic.

After terming out of the legislature, I began practicing law full time. I had purchased a piece of property about 10 years ago on a street which was pretty bad and in need of development, and I decided to put my money where my mouth is and redevelop the property as Smitty’s Wings, which is run by myself, my wife, and my mom.

Luckily, between takeout and my patio, I’ve been able to hold on to employees. My wife and I do other things, and so we can operate at a loss for a couple more months before we have to start making decisions in order to keep people employed. But if this was how I fed my kids, then five or six people would lose their jobs immediately.

There should have been a statewide determination of how all restaurants act. The pandemic didn’t choose to be in North Florida, South Florida, or Central Florida, it chose to be everywhere. The situation was political. The governor being close to President Trump wanted to make sure he was on the same playbook as the president instead of saying, “I’m Florida’s governor, and I’m going to do this with Florida, no matter what the president is saying.”

The governor should have said early on, “Everyone in the state, wear masks,” or, “Everybody in the state, we’re going to shut down for one week or ten days,” or something like that. But instead it was like I can do this in Central Florida, but I can’t do this in South Florida or North Florida—instead of saying this is what the whole state of Florida is going to do.

A lot of the municipalities came up with their own rules, and it wasn’t fair. If Lauderhill has a rule of only 30 percent occupancy, and Ft. Lauderdale can have 60 percent, those people that are going to get hamburgers are going to get them in Ft. Lauderdale, and that puts Lauderhill at a disadvantage. If there’s going to be a rule for restaurants, it ought to be statewide, so everyone is competing with each other equally.

Chris Smith at the Smitty’s Wings photo wall. Photo: Courtesy Chris Smith.

They could have developed a better plan to help with the takeout and maybe relax some of the rules, or lower the taxes on takeout. Instead of 6 percent sales tax, we should lower it to 3 percent in order to help those businesses. There could have been some innovative things done, but I think because the state really didn’t want to shut down, they didn’t have a chance to put something in place to help businesses.

They sent out information about PPP. But I’m a lawyer, and I’m still trying to figure this out. I found that other restaurants—especially other minority-owned restaurants—aren’t as sophisticated. When I talk to Betty’s and Spoons and BJ’s—these are just people who have had a restaurant for years, and they just do their thing. They don’t have the lawyers and accountants and everybody in place to help them immediately get the PPP done.

When PPP came out, a lot of the people that got it were those who had lawyers and bankers and accountants. But if you’re a small guy, and you do your own stuff on QuickBooks, the only time you got a lawyer is when something jumps off. You don’t have that business lawyer there to help you quickly handle PPP. And if you didn’t have the high-powered lawyers, you missed out, and you missed out again.

I think there should have been something to help with all that. Let’s put some aside for outreach on PPP, where we go to people and say, “Hey, Betty, we know you are over here struggling. We’re going to help you get these dollars that are set aside, and here’s a person from the government. We’re here to help. What did you miss? What can we do to help you handle it if three people go? How much will it cost to bring those people back?”

I almost should have opened a business before I went to the legislature. A lot of the things I argued about in the legislature, now I’m dealing with. Some of the things I supported or didn’t support, I would rethink now.

But I’m not a big fan of the idea that you should only let business people decide because they worked in the “real world.” You need to know the real world side, but you also need to know the political side of how it affects others. I’m not saying, “Oh, since I got to pay all these taxes now, lower the taxes—that will help small businesses.” I know those taxes go to help our schools, go to help our roads, go to help police.

I’ve been on the phone with a lot of my former colleagues, developing legislation to help businesses, and I plan on being in Tallahassee a lot to give a first-hand account as a former colleague who is now doing this work. I think me standing in front of a committee makes a big statement saying, “Hey, okay guys, let me tell you what’s going on in the real world. You got the lobbyists on both sides saying all this. Let me tell you as a person who’s got to sign the front of the checks what you could do to make it easier for people.”