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Camilla Marcus is Fighting for the Survival of NYC's Independent Restaurants

10 April, 2020
Camilla Marcus

Photo by: Benjamin Rosse

United they stand, divided they will fall: in a coordinated action, the likes of which has never been seen before in Brazil, the country’s chefs and restaurant owners have come together to succesfully pressure their government to provide emergency aid to the hospitality industry.

Tell us about ROAR, what is it, how did it begin and what do you want to achieve?

"As the severity of the pandemic intensified and restaurants closed their doors, our industry jumped into action and coalesced in a way we have never done before. Realizing that we weren’t part of crucial government relief negotiations, we saw a need for a united voice. That is where ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants) was born. We came together in a span of one day, which is remarkable. We are a statewide coalition of independent restaurant owners and chefs who are working together during this unprecedented crisis to establish a singular industry voice to advocate for the recovery of New York restaurant owners and, most importantly, for our teams."

"Our peers and the public have showed up for us and the restaurants they love in a big way. We have raised over $400,000 for our NYC Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, which we established in partnership with Robin Hood. In parallel, ROAR is hard at work on advocacy with the Governor’s office, as the COVID-19 situation and our government’s reaction to it are literally changing every day. Right now, as outlined in our petition which has over 100,000 signatures, we’re focused on ensuring that we have an industry to come back to when it is safe to do so."

Since your restaurant shuttered, what does an average day look like?

"Every day is different and fluid. As the situations shift course so frequently, it takes a lot to keep up with what is happening, synthesizing relief bills and government mandates (for my own business and for the ROAR community), managing the west~bourne team and our work from home programs, navigating calls with industry colleagues and friends to share information, cross reference and workshop ideas with one another. Not to mention, trying to take care of my family, my six-month-old son, and myself amidst everything else. I can say I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder or longer each day, all without a clear window of what the next day will bring."

Which state/city/country/chefs do you think is leading by example when it comes to the restaurant industry during this pandemic?

"The silver lining in this chaos is seeing so many individuals get creative about how to support their communities during this time. Times like these test us as humans - we learn who we really are and who we really want to be. And for many, it’s bringing out a real sense of community and care. I do think Governor Andrew Cuomo has been remarkable as a steadfast and empathetic leader during an absolutely unprecedented situation. His response is to the crisis, but it is not limited in scope. The ways he’s finding space to care for the mental health of New Yorkers, compassionately asking for the help of healthcare professionals and ensuring safety and security for all is inspiring and exemplary. He is a lighthouse, simultaneously connecting as a fellow human and citizen, a delicate balance that he is mastering and that we desperately need."

"Nationally, I have been inspired by and indebted to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is lobbying for our community with Congress. What they’ve been able to accomplish during such a short time in nothing short of extraordinary while also providing tangible, practical resources for our leaders to navigate the complexities of aid and mandates that are changing daily."

If you had Governor Andrew Cuomo standing here in front of you, what would say to him?

"I’d commend his leadership and stewardship through the current situation. He has been a true beacon in a time when we need it most. Then, I would walk him through our 8 point plan to be in a position to reopen, rehire, and eventually help our community:

○ 6-month income replacement program conditioned upon full and continued employment of all restaurant staff, payment of rents to landlords, and ongoing payables to suppliers.

○ Provide rent abatement for the duration of the administrative closure followed by percentage rent through 2020 for tenants. This must be coupled with mortgage forgiveness for landlords.

○ Suspend state sales and payroll tax through end of year. Permit deferral of utility payments until reopening. Mandate that fees charged by third-party delivery platforms to our local restaurants be capped at a maximum 10% of the order.

○ Maintain current State Liquor Authority (SLA) payment extensions and on-premise sales allowances. Give SLA the authority to permit businesses to open with a Temporary License in New York City while its application is going through the lengthy backlog at the SLA, like they do for applicants elsewhere in the state. All licenses and permits such as liquor licenses, sidewalk café licenses, Health Department permits, etc, must renew automatically without the payment of licensing fees.

○ Require business loss insurance to cover COVID-19 closures for hospitality businesses. The Governor must declare that the pandemic has caused physical loss and damage.

○ Declare that the pandemic falls under an exemption for state obligations under the Warn Act, and suspend New York City’s Fair Work Week Law.

○ Suspend the payment of all insurance premiums (and, protect against a spike in premium related to COVID-19), utility payments, fines and provide cure periods to businesses for violations that do not pose an immediate hazard to the public and workers. All taxes, fees, premiums and fines must be suspended indefinitely until a thorough and thoughtful strategy can be implemented to address these payments.

○ Add flexibility to the definition of small business to allow small to mid-size restaurants to apply for aid."

What industry changes would you like to see coming out the other side of this?

"This pandemic has illuminated that we as an industry were so disaggregated and as a result never properly represented at any level of government. When only large chains were invited to Washington in early March to participate in relief bill negotiations, we rallied together almost overnight with a passion and collective force that’s historic. I believe on the other side of this, our formalized coalitions and the seat at the tables with the government we’ve fought hard to secure during this crisis will remain and hopefully strengthen over time."

"With unification harnessed, to make it through sustainably we have to address what contributed to this current crisis. Independent restaurants survive on impossibly low margins, hovering around 10%, which is a result of intense overregulation of almost every level of operations and high corporate taxes (around 20% in total) coupled with rising food and real estate costs. That operating pressure is unheard of in other industries and does not allow for enough economic cushion to weather storms like what we are currently experiencing. Further, that paradigm seems counterproductive to the stability of such a mass collective employer. Our businesses provide critical jobs across the nation, including entry-level positions with no barriers to entry paired with open, long term career pathways, together creating a powerfully viable path to a flourishing middle class."

"Food for thought and context: New York City offered $3 billion in incentives to Amazon last year with the hopes of creating 25,000 jobs. Compare that to the fact that independent restaurants in the city provide 500,000 jobs, the vast majority of which don’t require any specific level of education, experience, or expertise."

You once said “Our independent streak—is a huge disadvantage when it comes to collaborating with regulators in crisis.” Is there a way of making it to your advantage in the future?

"That is exactly what we’re doing now. We’ve found ways to come together which allow for our individuality and autonomy over our businesses and teams, while also amassing our voices and appreciating the power we have as a collective. Together we employ 11 million people across the country. We are awakening to the scale we have as a group in a way I don’t believe we have before. There is no more severely distressed, yet systematically critical sector in our economy right now. At all levels - city, state and federal - we’ve come together as a community of business owners, who, although distinct from one another, all have a common goal: restoring the vibrancy, robustness and energy of our industry for our team and our guests."

"Our individuality becomes our advantage, then, when we can channel our difference of opinion, experience and expertise into a unified effort toward a common goal. Defining the structures and systems of these coalitions, organizations and groups, is both up to us and a work in progress. Having said that, we’re all working together to answer the question about how to leverage our uniqueness in tandem with our commonality to benefit all. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: for independent restaurants to remain the heart of the nation, as community anchors and top employers across the

What does the future look like for independent small restaurants in New York? 

"Though the horizon is hazy right now, we will emerge at some point. It seems inevitable that we will face an economic recession coupled with health safety concerns still looming until a vaccine is developed. So, I think we are likely looking at a longer recovery, which will continue to hit restaurants hard even once we are permitted to potentially reopen. To allow independent restaurants to come back and sustain, bringing our people back to work, the future will require a broader, thoughtful restructuring of how we operate in partnership with the government. We as a community and as an industry will have to remain unified and tightly bound to ensure that’s possible, and as an inherent optimist, I believe the grit and energy our work requires will be strengthened by this turmoil."

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