Dear Hollywood, Support the Restaurant Act! (Guest Column)

The dining room at Culver City chophouse Dear John's. Inset: Co-owner Patti Rockenwagner.
Courtesy of Wonho Frank Lee/Dear John's:Melanie Dunea/Dear John's

The dining room at Culver City chophouse Dear John's. Inset: Co-owner Patti Rockenwagner.

One week into L.A.'s outdoor dining ban, studio exec turned Dear John's co-owner Patti Rockenwagner implores the entertainment industry to help a symbiotic industry: "This pandemic is showing us how fragile our alliance is — if we don't do something, we will lose each other forever."

Dear Hollywood,

I have worked with you for more than 20 years, heading up corporate communications and branding at Paramount Pictures, Time Warner and Comcast. You have also become regulars at Dear John’s, a revived old-school steakhouse in Culver City that I co-own with my husband, Hans Röckenwagner, and our partner, chef Josiah Citrin. I know my way around opening weekend as well as a soft opening. While worlds apart in many ways, the truth is we have been in a symbiotic, if co-dependent relationship for some time and while it has worked for many years, this pandemic is showing us how fragile our alliance is — and how, if we don't do something now, we will lose each other forever. Let me explain.

We, the independent restaurant industry, employ more than 11 million people across the country — many of whom are budding actors, writers, stuntpeople, voiceover actors, comedians, musicians and directors. In Los Angeles, we estimate as high as 60 percent to 70 percent of our servers, hosts, catering staff and bartenders are pursuing careers in entertainment. Not only do we accommodate work schedules for auditions and rehearsals, we provide on-the-job training, free meals and health insurance. Don’t get me wrong. We have benefited too. The unspoken social contract allowed us the flexibility to scale staffing to meet the ever-changing demands of a notoriously fickle business, and let us rely on tips to compensate front-of-the-house staff (so we could more fairly compensate the kitchen).

The system was far from perfect pre-COVID, but today we are facing an existential crisis with an estimated half of independent restaurants at risk of closing forever, and another 40 percent saying it’s “unlikely” they will still be in business in six months if there aren’t more relief packages, according to the National Restaurant Association. In fact, the association reports 100,000 restaurants – one in six across the country – have already closed. In Los Angeles County, the latest assault on the restaurant industry came the day before Thanksgiving, prohibiting all on-premises dining, including outdoors, for three weeks. Most observers predict the shutdown will last much longer; it will likely go through the all-important holiday season (traditionally the most profitable time of year) and with every day that restaurants stay closed with no financial support, the more real it becomes that 2020 will be the year of the great restaurant industry die off.

We know parts of the entertainment business are hurting too, and we’re not misplacing our hopes and fears on you, some of our most loyal customers and friends. It’s way deeper than that. If anything, what this catastrophe is showing us is how intertwined we are, how similar we are, and how creative industries must support one another.

And many of you have stepped up. Over the past eight months, you have bought our takeout and gift certificates and you’ve dined at our patios-cum-parking lots and generously tipped our staff. We are grateful — truly. But what if you did something bigger? The thing you have that we don’t is a platform. With one post, you can sell out sneakers and purses. With one telethon, you raise millions for cancer and arts in schools and a number of other worthwhile causes. With one tweet, you get people to vote. We are entrepreneurs, chefs and owners who have never thought of ourselves as causes (or ever wanted to). We are used to quietly wringing the last drop out of lemons and MacGyver’ing kitchen equipment so it lasts longer and figuring out how we’re going to afford the ever-ballooning insurance premiums. We are proud and resourceful and unreasonably optimistic, but now, it is dawning on us, we are a cause.

Our cause is called the Restaurant Act of 2020. The Independent Restaurant Coalition created this bipartisan effort to establish a $120 billion Independent Restaurant Revitalization Fund that would specifically help small restaurants and bars impacted by COVID-19. It passed the House of Representatives and is now languishing in the Senate. But time is running out. Every day without relief — and hope that any relief is coming — means our favorite restaurants and neighborhood bars are closing, and going away with them are millions of jobs and dreams.

And then what? We will be left with corporate-owned restaurant chains and ghost kitchens (facilities that exist solely for takeout). The few independents that make it will be so saddled with debt and have such diminished buying power, it’s inevitable that prices will go up, service will go down, menu choices will be limited and any extras forgone. The death of restaurants today will have far-reaching and long-term impacts on all of us.

So, dear Hollywood, could you please add us — the people who make you the perfect Caesar salad tableside every time, and remember that you don’t like onions, and get your martini right and with a smile — to your list of causes? Congress returns to session this week. Imagine how moved policymakers will be to get this letter from you asking them to pass the Restaurant Act right now? And could we ask that you please activate your followers and fans by tweeting, posting and talking about the valuable role restaurants play as economic drivers, as employers, as buyers, as renters, as creators. #SaveRestaurants is not a hashtag we want to exist, but it does and we need allies like you to get the message out before it’s too late.

In return, we promise we will continue to wear our PPE and sanitize and distance. When we are able, we promise to save you that lucky corner booth by the fire so you can get your big deals done. We will put the sauce on the side and go light on the oil. We will jump through hoops to get our dining rooms set up just the way you want it for your afterparties and premieres. We will cook and clean and create our hearts out for you. Thank you for the many happy years we have had together. We hope this isn’t it for us. We have too much more to give to let it end this way. We'd much prefer a Hollywood ending.

Love, Patti

Patti Röckenwagner is an entertainment consultant and co-owner of Dear John’s and The Röckenwagner Bakery Group.