In it Together: Calling All Leaders With Kevin Boehm and Naomi Pomeroy

OpenTable’s new weekly webinar series, In it Together, tackles key topics facing the industry during the COVID-19 crisis. What does hospitality look like in a time of emergency? How can we support our communities today, both financially and emotionally? Hosted by our COO Andrea Johnston, the platform brings together restaurant leaders and experts to foster conversation and share advice during uncertain times. Register for free for upcoming webinars featuring Steve Palmer, Becca Parrish, Elizabeth Blau, and many more.

This week a group of restaurant executives and leaders met with the Trump administration to address weaknesses in the Paycheck Protection Program, a key component of the CARES Act intended to keep hospitality workers employed. The conversation marked a critical moment for the industry: today, restaurateurs aren’t just business owners but advocates, effecting policy change at the highest levels.

One voice at the May 18 roundtable was Will Guidara, a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), an organization dedicated to saving local restaurants. (As many as 25% of independent restaurants could close permanently due to the coronavirus pandemic.) The IRC was founded in mid-March, when a group of celebrated restaurateurs across the country joined a phone call with a simple call to action: Would you help us save restaurants? From reps at the James Beard Foundation to Guidara and Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio, plenty came on board to raise capital and start lobbying. 

For our most recent In it Together discussion, we invited IRC leaders Kevin Boehm, cofounder of Chicago’s BOKA Group, and Naomi Pomeroy, chef of Beast in Portland, Oregon, to weigh in on how to lead in a crisis.

“We’ve come a long way in seven weeks, with 50,000 participants,” said Pomeroy. “We’ve been hearing that we’ve gotten more traction on The Hill in a short period than anyone has ever seen. You take people used to working 16 hours a day – what the hell else are we going to do?”

“We went from state-mandated closure straight into IRC advocacy,” added Boehm. “We didn’t know each other before, and we’ve become friends through this. We have a phone call nearly every morning – it’s like a support group as well as advocacy.” 

Unite around a common ask

Pomeroy attributes some of the IRC’s impact to the all-hands-on-deck effort that earned the coalition a seat at the table. The organization joined forces with representatives from the National Restaurant Association and national chains to push forward a common ask – to amend and extend the PPP. 

“Everyone was in support,” she said. “It was about finding the channels where there was agreement on how to save the industry.” She emphasized that even though the IRC boasts some big names (Tom Colicchio, Andrew Zimmern), the coalition encompasses different styles of restaurants, including her 26-seat spot. 

Educate others about the business

“We found early on that most politicians didn’t really understand how our businesses operate,” said Boehm. To explain why the PPP needs to change, restaurateurs first had to educate policymakers about the cost to run a restaurant, how employment works, and the scope of the issue (11.1 million people work in independent restaurants nationwide). 

Boehm identified two specific changes to the PPP that the coalition would like to see. First, the program allows restaurants eight weeks to reopen and operate at full capacity; the IRC wants to extend that period to 24 weeks. Next, they want the PPP to give restaurants until the end of 2020 to get back up to 100% full-time equivalents. 

“We don’t want a bailout, we want the opportunity to get back to work because we’re so important to American society, cities, and neighborhoods,” he added. 

Education extends to restaurant guests and the general public, too, Pomeroy said. “Restaurateurs have been so busy eeking by that we haven’t had the chance to communicate with communities about what it takes to do what we do,” she explained. “We have make-up work to do in that area – to educate about why food needs to cost what it does.” 

Be honest, inclusive, and vulnerable

When it comes to leadership style, both Pomeroy and Boehm default to honesty, while remaining inclusive of different viewpoints. “It’s important to say how you feel and also find the sweet spot that doesn’t alienate people and tends to be bipartisan,” Pomeroy said. “The cause here is restaurants – everybody wants to go out to eat, whether to an old steakhouse or a Vietnamese noodle shop down the street. We can find a lot of commonality at the table.”

For her, being honest and vulnerable means sharing doubts with her team about how to use loans, for example, and whether she can bring servers back after the crisis. And if her team needs to find alternative work in the interim, she’s understanding. 

Solicit ideas from others

At BOKA, Boehm is proud to have collective intelligence in his executive team, who talk through issues as they come up. He appreciates that everyone around the table has a unique style and perspective. “Abby [Kritzler, Executive Director] is the most compassionate person I know, and also risk-averse,” he explained. “That’s why she has a spot. Making all of these decisions together has been an exercise in finding the right answer that gets us to the intersection of doing the right thing, being responsible, and keeping our company running at the same time.” 

Pomeroy also has great leadership, but because her team is small, she doesn’t have the same support network. As a result, she leans on the IRC. “One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the IRC is because I’m able to have those conversations and reflect. That’s given me a lot of inspiration.” 

She’s also soliciting ideas from her community. When she announced that Beast might not reopen in its previous format, guests were devastated – and Pomeroy wants to use their investment to engage them in the future of the restaurant. She plans to survey her email list about what they’d like to see. “How can we all create something together?”

Raise collective expectations for the industry

Boehm pointed out that while a T-shirt has skyrocketed in price over the past decade, “a burger is still $15.” The restaurant business has stagnated while the rest of the world has evolved. A couple of decades ago, he would see a 20% profit, but “every year the model gets worse,” with higher taxes and labor costs. 

“We need to look at the model, cut better real estate deals, build better pricing structures, and stop having a model that’s so fragile,” he said. 

Pomeroy shared that she was shocked to hear Tom Colicchio admit that he only turns a profit in the last four months of the year. “I thought I was the only one going through that cycle, biting my nails every winter,” she said. “I came to realize that’s been par for the course.” 

She called on restaurateurs to change the business model by being more transparent, sharing experiences, and banding together to raise prices and exercise their collective voices. 

Embrace the silver lining

One plus side of a struggling industry is the opportunity to reinvent it. Boehm noted that over the years, as people mature as ideas become more vetted and filtered, “you dream within this box.” In this moment, restaurateurs can drop the guardrails and think big. “What do I want to be, what do I want this industry to be moving forward?” he asked. “Let’s be really innovative.” 

Pomeroy used the phrase tabula rasa, or “blank slate,” to describe the opportunity. For example, she has loved spending more time at home during the shelter-in-place orders instead of working 65 hours a week. “What can I design in the future that has me working three to four days a week? There’s a lot of opportunity for us all to maximize.”