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Kwame Onwuachi: Restaurants Need Bailouts, Just Like Airlines

Calling for aid to help millions of workers laid off by the pandemic closures.

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Kwame Onwuachi started cooking on a ship cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but it wasn’t long before his drive took him through some of the country’s best kitchens—and all the way to Top Chef. After opening and closing his first restaurant in Washington DC—the tumultuously short-lived Shaw Bijou—Onwuachi returned with Kith and Kin, a celebratory tour of African and Caribbean cuisine. He also found the time to publish a blockbuster memoir, Notes from a Young Black Chef. Like everyone else in the industry, he’s looking for ways to navigate the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the future of restaurants.

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My team and I—collectively we’re devastated. The unknown is the hardest thing about this. We’re doing our part by staying away, staying home. We have 60-plus employees at the restaurant, so doing delivery isn’t really feasible for us. Our business was set up as a dining establishment. We want to get back to work full-time.

I sat down with most of my team, and we talked about how unfortunate this whole ordeal is, and that we’re going to communicate as much as we can during the interim. But we’re pretty much waiting on the government to let us know when we can start operating at normal capacity. We talked about how we’ve been doing this for three years, and putting our blood, sweat, and tears into making people happy. We’ll come back stronger. We’ll get out of this. We’re resilient as human beings. We will figure out a way, no matter the situation. But the fear of the unknown is definitely scary. We’ve got to keep strong.

As for me, I’m moving. I am moving. I’m quarantining, but I’m not trying to stay home and sit on the couch and just watch Netflix. I’m eating healthy, working out every morning, going for a run when I can.

And as restaurants, we’re doing everything we can. We created produce packages for the community and for staff to take home. We did at-cost meals for our supporters. We’re trying to come together and do whatever we can to make it a little bit easier.

The looming question is when are things going to get back to normal for most people? A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck. And taking a two-week or a one-month or two-month hit—it’s extremely daunting. And that unknown is terrifying.

As leaders in this industry, we have a platform, and we can use that to make some noise so Congress can include independent restaurants in the stimulus plan. We’ve started an independent restaurant coalition—a group of chefs, restaurateurs, and activists from the James Beard Foundation, like Katherine Miller, Mitchell Davis, Will Guidara, Marcus Samuelsson, Danny Meyer, Tom Colicchio. We’re talking to our senators and representatives and having real conversations, letting them know we’re a huge part of this workforce. We’ve laid off over 7 million people in the past week and a half by government order. We need a bailout as much as the airlines.