Washington DC's Immigrant Food makes a compelling case for advocacy as selling point.
By Peter Schechter as told to Chris Mohney
Peter Schechter is cofounder of Washington DC’s Immigrant Food. Previously an international investor, consultant, and writer, Schechter has—along with cofounder and chef Enrique Limardo—established Immigrant Food as a restaurant driven by advocacy and action for immigrants and immigration issues.
We felt the effects of the pandemic probably before almost any other eating establishment in Washington because our neighbors are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank is half a block away, the International Monetary Fund is a block away, and the Inter-American Development Bank is three blocks away. A huge chunk of our clients pre-COVID were from those international institutions. All of them began giving their employees the choice of coming to office or not in mid-February.
At that point, we started saying, “What the hell is going on?” In America, we did not yet realize. In Europe, they were beginning to realize, particularly in Italy. I was born and raised in Italy, and I have lots of Italian friends. In Italy, it started getting very problematic in February. But in America, we continued to feel invincible, and that the oceans would protect us in some way. The mayor of DC declared a health emergency on the 14th of March—but before that, the World Bank on the 5th or 6th of March had already commanded its employees to stay home. At that point, we knew that we, everyone in the restaurant industry, and all US citizens would not be immune to this, and that things were very bad.
We were in a real panic, like everybody was, beginning to figure out—Do we close? Do we try to stay open? Do we do pickup and delivery? Our heads were spinning. It was one of the one of the more difficult and stressful times in my professional life.
We are in the most downtown business district possible. We’re the White House’s neighbor. We’re the building next door. Many other places were having so many problems, but the business districts of all major cities were the worst of all, because nobody lives around there. We quickly realized that pickup and delivery were going to be problematic because DoorDash and Uber Eats and some of the others have a three-mile radius limit. And because of our deep downtown address, we were further constricted. The buildings were completely empty. There was nobody down here. And the delivery companies wouldn’t go to a large part of the city because of the three-mile radius. Anybody who lives in Upper Northwest Washington DC—we were unable to get deliveries to them.
So we faced a triple problem—the same pandemic issues as everyone else, but also we had only opened two and a half months before the pandemic. Nobody knew us. And furthermore, we were in a neighborhood which was great if all the office buildings were full, but now the neighborhood was the worst possible place to have a restaurant. So we shut down almost immediately.
Two weeks later, our employees came back to us. Obviously they were desperate as well. They said, “How about we try delivery and pickup, and we will do the deliveries.” So our cashier turned into our delivery guy. Our dishwasher turned into the line cook. Our chef here, who has been Enrique Limardo’s right-hand woman for half a decade, turned into another line cook. We all started chipping in, and we reopened in early April for delivery. Day one, we made $100. To tell you that I wanted to cry is an understatement.
We’re more than a restaurant—we’re a platform for advocacy on immigration. We kept hammering away at social media. We kept on sending out lots of information on the situation for immigrants. We did virtual events. And slowly people started saying, “Who are these people who keep talking about immigration?” And our delivery business started building up. I can’t say it was enough to pay the rent or to build a livelihood, but by mid- to late May, we were doing $750, $800 a day in delivery, which is a major jump from $100.
You name it, we went there. We did a delivery to Gaithersburg, 11 or 12 miles away. To deliver a $12 sandwich and a $4 drink, I would have carried it to New York. We did everything we could for every dollar of sales. I still believe that what has kept us alive as a totally new brand is the fact that we have done things that were different and really spoke to an audience about a restaurant with a mission, about food that’s also a cause.
We also quickly started Friday immigrant dinners. We couldn’t hire back one of our line cooks from El Salvador full-time. We asked her instead to do a business deal with us—if you make pupusas for our Friday night immigrant dinners, we’re going to take pictures of you, and we’re going to have you talk on Instagram and teach people how to make them, and then we’ll give you a percentage of the sales. It became super popular. On Fridays we would have an industrial line of delivery orders, where we would be like, “Virginia is in that corner! Maryland is in that corner!” My wife, who has a big SUV, would come and she’d deliver things to Virginia.
By then, the mayor allowed us to have people sitting outside. That really was the big difference when we were able to have both pickup and delivery as well as outside seating.
What we’ve seen since then is that every day, a few more people have come back to downtown. Now that’s beginning to pull back again. On our block was an Indian fast-casual place across the street. There’s a Chop’t and a Starbucks and a grilled cheese sandwich place, all across the street. On our side of the street is a place called the Bread Line, which is an independent operator, then Roti, Peet’s, Jimmy John’s, Potbelly, and us. The only ones who have survived are the grilled cheese place, Potbelly, and us. Everybody else has closed.
I have been an investor in the ThinkFoodGroup and José Andrés’ restaurants for 27 years. I didn’t need another restaurant investment. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt very strongly that—even though I write a lot of op-eds and do a lot of TV interviews—I wanted something really concrete and tangible that every day would reach out and say to people, “This country is not recognizable as the country that my parents came to in 1936 and 1942.” Notwithstanding the huge accents my parents had, nobody ever told them they weren’t American. Nobody ever dared say to my father, “You should go back to where you came from.”
Everyone at the restaurant, we’ve all had these immigrant experiences. We wear them on our sleeves. That’s the name of the restaurant. We could have called it anything, but we called it Immigrant Food because we wanted to make a statement about the pride of immigrants, and immigration, and about what this country has always been—a place that people came to to thrive and make sure their kids had a better situation than they did in other countries.
I’ve written two international mystery novels, and I could never have invented this pandemic. Americans have come to expect a lot from restaurants and do not understand the razor-thin margins that restaurants work under. Something is askew. There’s something misaligned in what is being charged for food and labor versus what restaurants are paying. There is no space for riding out a crisis—the 5 or 6 percent profit margins get wiped out instantaneously in most companies. A lot of restaurants have gone to a mandatory service fee, which is super common in Europe. But I suspect that only American restaurants of a certain level could impose fees like that on their clientele. I don’t see a casual restaurant like ours being able to tell people you have to pay a 20 percent service fee.
I know lots of restaurants that would not have survived without the PPP program, and they won’t survive this winter unless there is another round of funding for small businesses. When you look at other countries, when you look at Germany or the UK and how they’ve handled this, there’s an almost automatic safety net that manages to help small businesses. It’s vastly different than having us all waiting for Congress with baited breath to do something, or not do something. I’m not at all making this a partisan issue. It’s just that there’s something wrong with a system that is unable to come to the aid of people and businesses in need. And it’s businesses that employ people. We need a more agile and faster way.
We have 11 to 14 million undocumented people living among us in America, and an overwhelming number of those undocumented people make money in the food service industry—whether it’s in farming or slaughtering or transporting or hauling or making the food, serving the food, or picking up or delivering the food. These are, to almost to a man and a woman, taxpaying members of our community, many of whom have been here for a long, long time. There has to be a way that we can regularize these people who are a part of our community because they already do everything. We have to think big about how we can have a path towards making them citizens. I understand this raises the hackles of some people who will tell you, “I came legally, so I resent people who have come illegally.” But the fact remains that we have 11 to 14 million undocumented people here. If you would take these people away, we would have a massive, massive problem in our food industry. And I don’t think that we can have our entire food industry in the hands of people who live in the shadows. I don’t think it’s fair, and I don’t think that’s right.
There are many small things that each individual business can do. At Immigrant Food, we have committed to paying a living wage, which in Washington is $17.65 an hour. We have never not paid that. God willing, we are going to be able to do that forever. But as a country, we have to understand who is creating our food, and we have to provide them with respect that they deserve.