Founded in March 2020, the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) began with a single mission – to save independent restaurants and bars affected by the pandemic. Made up entirely of chefs and independent operators, the grassroots organization has been fighting ever since for government relief, rallying support for what would become the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF), and fighting for the fund to be replenished after the Small Business Administration (SBA) claimed it had run out. Today, the IRC continues to call on the SBA to distribute the $180 million discovered to still be in the pot.
But these days, the IRC’s focus stretches beyond COVID-19-related relief efforts. While advocacy remains its primary mission, the organization is making efforts to support independent restaurants on a wider scale as we move into a post-pandemic climate.
“We’re prioritizing work based on what we’re hearing from our members,” says Erika Polmar, the IRC’s executive director. “What sets the IRC apart, in the way that we're strategizing, is everything the organization does comes from people who are involved directly in the daily operations of independent bars and restaurants.”
The IRC’s recent partnership with BetterHelp, an online therapy platform, is just one example of how members have shaped the organization’s mission. IRC members receive a free month’s access to the service, which connects individuals with licensed therapists.
“As we weren’t seeing the Restaurant Revitalization Fund being replenished, and the holidays were approaching, we were getting panic calls, and that’s when we formed our partnership with BetterHelp,” says Polmar. “These businesses have gone through two years of hell – nothing was stable, many people’s income stream has been totally disrupted – and we needed to make sure that we made mental health resources accessible.”
Beyond mental health support, the IRC also wants to be an operational resource for independent restaurant owners. The organization offers peer-to-peer support, inviting operators to get business advice in moments where they might feel stuck. Currently, there’s no formal structure, but operators can reach out through the organization’s general contact form with questions.
“We had somebody say, ‘I think I missed the boat on the Employee Retention Credit. I don't understand it, and my tax preparer is telling me they can't do it. I do my own payroll. Can you help?’,” says Polmar. “So I pointed them to some videos [in our resource library], and then I also called a restaurant owner who I knew did their own books and could walk somebody through it.”
Building up its video library is one of the IRC’s current goals. This month the organization is kicking off several free series of recorded seminars, accessible live via Instagram or on demand through the online library.
First is Sidework Seminars, which Polmar describes as “peer support, but in a broader range”. It’ll cover topics related to business operations, civics, grassroots organizing, and wellness, featuring interviews with industry professionals and experts. The first discussion will take place between Frontera Restaurants’ Rick Bayless and Amanda Carey, an expert in foot health and physical fitness.
“They're going to talk about how to keep your back, spine, and feet in good health while working really long, crazy days in the kitchen,” says Polmar.
The IRC is also launching Between the Lines, the organization’s take on a book club. The series kicks off on October 25th with a conversation between chef Dan Jacobs of DanDan and operator Will Guidara in support of Guidara’s new book, Unreasonable Hospitality.
Third is a series called Heard, set to feature bite-sized tips, targeting both industry professionals but also consumers and legislators.
“Restaurant owners, for instance, are really frustrated with third-party delivery apps, and one thing they're frustrated with is that their customers think ordering through that delivery app is doing a great service to the restaurant,” says Polmar. “So we’re going to make it clear to the public how those work and the economics of it.”
Moving forward, the IRC plans to continue to expand its educational offerings. It’s also in the process of developing ways to help operators gain better access to, and also navigate, resources like health insurance and increased purchasing power.
As the IRC grows its resources for operators, advocacy remains the organization’s top agenda.
“The most important thing the Independent Restaurant Coalition can do is to continue to be a voice of independence in D.C., and that will continue to be our top priority,” says Polmar.
Its lobbying efforts have expanded to include addressing issues like credit card fee disparities, which have more than doubled in the last decade, and the reauthorization of the Farm Bill, impacting all aspects of U.S. agriculture, including farmers’ livelihoods, conservation of farmland, and how food is grown. The IRC is also focused on getting the remaining Economic Injury Disaster Loan, or EIDL, distributed to restaurants.
Currently, the IRC focuses solely on federal policies, not state-specific issues. It prioritizes its advocacy work based on the issues operators bring up during member meetings.
“Oftentimes those meetings are demystifying politics, for lack of a better phrase,” says Polmar. “It’s sometimes really hard to understand how things make their way through Congress or what we need to do to educate our lawmakers to make sure they’re representing our needs.”
Meetings take place once a month over Zoom. To take part, owners and operators can sign up online to become an IRC member. Annual fees are based off of an operator’s annual revenue and range from $100 to $1,000.
Members gain an invite to share what matters to them most, but also guidance on how they can go out and advocate on their own behalf.
“You should see the moment you say to a lawmaker, ‘Well, independent restaurants put 90 cents of every dollar back into the economy.’, and it’s that much more impactful when it’s coming from a restaurant owner or employee,” says Polmar. “We’re giving support in finding the right people to talk to, crafting the messages, and getting questions answered like, “Why isn't my senator's office calling me back?”
She adds, “All of these folks are absolutely instrumental in educating everyone about the role that [restaurants] play in our local economies.”
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy Galdones Photography]
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