"Time Is of the Essence": Wolfgang Puck on Why He’s Lobbying Trump for a Restaurant Industry Bailout

THR Wolfgang Puck_AH_LA_Covid19_0181 2 - THR - H 2020
Austin Hargrave

Hollywood’s favorite chef crusades for insurers to pay up on COVID-19 business interruption claims. He also wants a return of the meal expenses deduction: "It’ll help us a lot."

From London to Singapore, and at airports across the world, Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant empire — like his colleagues, large and small, across the sector — has been hammered by the economic effect of COVID-19. Locally, Spago, Chinois on Main and his eponymous dining room at the Hotel Bel-Air are relegated to takeout while Hollywood’s favorite chef, 70, huddles with top lieutenants to determine how best to continuing supporting his 1,100 fine-dining employees, as well as the several thousand additional workers who staff his franchised and licensed projects, along with his vast catering division, whose events include the Oscars. At this point, he believes restrictions won’t ease on the U.S. hospitality business until June.

But Puck isn’t just focused on the woes across his vast reach, fine-dining to fast-casual. (The tiered domain totals 104 locations.) Since the crisis began, he’s emerged as a leading activist for the bailout of the American restaurant industry. On March 24, he appeared alongside fellow famed chef Thomas Keller on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, whose host is known to have President Donald Trump’s ear on pandemic policy. Together, they pressed their argument that insurance companies are wrongfully denying business interruption claims, and the federal government should quickly backstop the insurers so that the restaurant claimants, in turn, can survive.

By Monday, Puck and Keller had joined fellow high-profile chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (whose flagship restaurant is in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York) on a call with the president, during which they pushed him on the business interruption insurance as well as what they considered a “stimulus” provision for their sector: a return of the meal expenses deduction, which had been eliminated by 2017’s Tax Reform Act. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Puck on Wednesday about his policy push, the anxiety of knowing that many of his employees have no rainy-day savings and stress-eating Guittard chocolate in the midst of the crisis.

You’re doing a lot of lobbying now.

I want people to know who we are. The National Rifle Association has the same acronym as our lobbying group, the National Restaurant Association, but nobody knows who we are. We have no voice. They’re so strong and we’re the biggest employer in the country — 15 and a half million people, the second largest after the government itself! We need the ear of whoever is in the White House. This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats.

Your key issue is business interruption insurance.

Time is of the essence. We cannot wait until October for something to get done. The easiest and fastest way is with the insurance companies to take the responsibility. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve paid to the insurance companies, and for them not to come up with the money right away? I just don’t know how long it’ll take to make this happen. All of the overhead in restaurants — to keep the lights on, to keep the water going — matters. There are bills to pay. This is a day-to-day business.

Your group discussion with President Trump has already paid dividends. He says he’s asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to restore the meal expenses deduction, which had been eliminated by the 2017 Tax Reform Act.

When they took that away, people stopped going out so much. This would be a stimulus for restaurants. Here in Hollywood alone, if people can deduct their meal expenses, it’ll help us a lot.

What don’t people outside of restaurants understand about allowing the sector to fail?

That it’s not just restaurants and their employees that are hurting. It’s the entire network of suppliers: the farmers, the fishermen. Where are they going to sell all of that stuff? If us restaurants aren’t buying, who’s buying? Places like Walmart aren’t set up to buy from small farmers and independent fishermen.

What’s been the hardest part of this experience for you?

I’ve been getting messages from employees and they say, “I’ve got to feed my family, what can I do?” I have a guy, Javier, who has been making pizzas since Spago opened. He’s got six kids. I told him, you’re staying on the payroll. All of these individuals are in real trouble. They don’t have a big savings account. Something like this has never happened before. When I get emails from people who’ve worked for me for so many hears, I feel like I’m letting them down.

What are you dining on during the quarantine?

Last night with the kids, we made chicken fingers in our air fryer oven. We breaded them and added some romaine lettuce and some dipping sauce. I made it with my 14-year-old son Oliver. He gets really excited.

Do you stress-eat?

When I’m stressed I eat a lot of chocolate. It gives me pleasure. I think I’ve gained 10 pounds these past few weeks. We have Guittard chocolate at our office.

What’s been the biggest personal challenge of this crisis?

The hardest thing is the unknown — not knowing when it’s going to finish. It’s like working in the dark. You don’t know if you’re going to fall off a cliff. We thought it’d be the first of May, and now we think: “If it’s the first of June, we’ll be lucky.”

What have you learned about yourself?

I’m reminded that I’m the eternal optimist. I see the glass half full all the time. When I go by Spago, I cheer up my employees. I say, “It will get better, don’t worry, I have your back.”

What do you look forward to doing when a semblance of normalcy returns?

Returning to the fish market, the farmers’ market, interacting with the people, planning our menus, doing the catering for our big events — you do things for 40 years, and then all of a sudden it suddenly, totally stops. It reinforces why you love it all.