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Why the Restaurant Industry Will Play an Important Role in Reopening, According to Andrew Zimmern

Employing over 11 million workers and making up nearly 4 percent of the economy’s annual GDP, the impact of the restaurant and food industry is not to be taken lightly.

Andrew Zimmern. Photo courtesy of Travel Channel

Back in February, Worth caught up with Andrew Zimmern as he released his latest show What’s Eating America?, through which he explored political issues pertaining to the food industry and ultimately, us all. The miniseries ended in mid-March, and while this show was 10 years in the making, Zimmern says he’s never been busier than he is right now amidst the coronavirus outbreak.

“I don’t think I’ve ever worked this hard in my life,” the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern host and four-time James Beard award winner says.

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“We’ve had to let go of so many people in all of our businesses, closed restaurants, all the rest of that,” Zimmern says. “So managing all that drawdown, managing the business survival plans, trying to square up with our opportunities for economic relief from different state and national entities and spending the majority of my time doing social justice, organizing around the issues of restaurants and workers’ rights and things like that.”

One of the things that has Zimmern busy is working with the recently developed Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), of which he is a founding member.

“There had been a loose collaboration of 20 or 30 of us who had believed over the last five years that galas are great, donations are great, GoFundMes are great, but if we really want to make change in America, we have to be influencing policy and law on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “And so, when the C-19 began, we got together on the phone and said, ‘Let’s start this thing.’ That became the Independent Restaurant Coalition.”

The IRC’s mission is to save local restaurants throughout the U.S. that have been affected by the pandemic by aiming to change legislation to make sure restaurants have what they need to stay afloat.

“Now, we have 10,000 members, we elected a board, we hired an executive director,” Zimmern says. “We have communications companies that we’re working with. We have lobbying groups that we’re working with, and we are chugging along every single day talking to every senator and congressperson that we can about what needs to be fixed with the economic crunches that, some of which had been intended for small businesses, but have mostly been a complete bust for the independent restaurant.”

A valid concern, indeed, with independent restaurants making up nearly 4 percent of the country’s GDP and employing some 11 million workers nationally. Among Zimmern’s other concerns is that of workers and their ability to stay safe. He became involved in immigrants’ and workers’ rights while working on What’s Eating America? and through his work with the International Rescue Committee. He saw firsthand the conditions workers were facing—from meat factories and chicken plants to fields in the Salinas Valley.

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“Having had that experience, it was obvious to me months ago that, if this thing blew up, our food distribution and supply system was going to be decimated,” he says. “And people kept worrying about, do we have enough food? People get worrying about transmission of the disease onto food. I said, ‘Forget both of those things, how do we protect the safety of our workers?’ Because if no one else will step up to pick lettuce and butcher chicken and cut meat, oftentimes in hazardous conditions for low pay, when those people get sick, and they will because the way a virus is transmitted is closed quarters, human-to-human transmission, I said, ‘These people can’t physically distance, they don’t have health care, they don’t have the tools at their disposal. They live six to eight to a room during harvest season. This is a disaster waiting to happen, as these food workers get sick.’”

“You didn’t need to be Nostradamus or have a crystal ball to be right on that one, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” he says. “And so, I’m very worried about the person-to-person transmission making the job of feeding America extremely difficult.”

There are certainly still challenges ahead, including navigating how to reopen cities and states. But, Zimmern says, he’s been impressed by the leadership governors and mayors have displayed during this time.

“Look at the work that Mayor Garcetti and Governor Newsom are doing in California. Look at the incredible work that Mayor Frey and Governor Walz are doing in Minnesota. Look at the incredible job that Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker are doing in Chicago. Whether you like them or not, they rub a lot of folks the wrong way, but look at the incredible job Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo are doing in New York. And I could go on and on,” he says. “These are real leaders that have stepped up to the front and are solving problems and talking about the issues honestly and openly with the people of their city and state. I think we’re in good shape.”

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And according to Zimmern, restaurants are going to play an important part in the reopening of our cities.

“We’re going to be a vital resource for restoring sanity, for intersecting culture, for supplying jobs,” Zimmern says of the restaurant and food industry upon reopening. “Independent restaurants are the number two employer of Americans in the country [in the private sector].”

The food and restaurant industry has undoubtedly been hit hard by COVID-19, and while the industry is struggling right now, the heart of it remains intact. And that’s what gives Zimmern hope.

“I get hope from the small little independent restaurants that have had the shit kicked out of them 20 times a week over the last five, six weeks,” he says. “Do you want to know what their response is? ‘Let’s get donated food and make 100 meals and take it to the hospital down the street.’ Because that’s what food people do. The most generous, kind, loving group of people in the world are food people. Despite the tragedies and the harms that have been laid at their feet, they’re just volunteering and doing what we always do, which is cooking food for other people.”

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