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SF’s Highest-Powered Restaurants Might Sue to Reopen Their Dining Rooms

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The man behind many of San Francisco’s most prominent restaurants is thinking about suing the city, and he’s hoping that the region’s best-known chefs might join his charge. His goal is to force the city to reopen indoor dining — or, at the very least, offer a plan and metrics for when service inside might return.

Hanson Li is the founder of Salt Partners Group, which you probably haven’t heard of. What you have heard of are most of the restaurants the ground has created, managed, and has ownership in: Everything in multi-Michelin lauded Crenn Dining Group (that’s Atelier Crenn, Petit Crenn, and Bar Crenn), ice cream mini-empire Humphry Slocombe, High-Proof (that’s the bar group behind spots like Horsefeather and Last Rites), and many others. He’s the man behind the curtain, if you will.

But Li has stepped out onto center stage this week, sending an email to a long list of high-profile local restaurateurs, some of whom say they’ve only met him in passing. (“How did I get on this email?” one powerful food group’s owner self-deprecatingly asked Eater SF.) In the email, Li says that he’d like to file a lawsuit similar to a $2 billion class action suit filed by hundreds of restaurants in the outer boroughs of New York City earlier this month. The New York suit, which names Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and New York’s attorney general, says that restaurants in the city are suffering “irreparable harm” by being closed for indoor dining, and claim that Cuomo’s decision to keep the city outdoor-only is “random, arbitrary and unfair.”

A few days after the New York lawsuit was filed, Cuomo agreed to allow indoor dining as of September 30. Correlation does not imply causation, and a lawsuit filed a week before an announcement does not mean that one incident prompted the other. But according to Li, a similar suit in SF might prompt New York-style results.

As you might recall, San Francisco is — at the state level — allowed to reopen dining rooms at 25 percent capacity, and has been since August 31. But the city’s dining rooms remain shut down, with SF Director of Public Health Grant Colfax saying that he found it too risky to reopen dining rooms during a press conference to announce the resumption of a number of indoor activities. Over two weeks later, the city still has not released any sort of guidance or timeline for indoor dining.

It’s that lack of a publicly stated plan, Li says, that sent him and Tim Stannard (the founder of Bacchus Management Group, which owns Michelin-starred Spruce and the Village Pub, mini-chain Pizza Antica, and several other California restaurants) to meet with a high-powered group of lawyers on September 11. The global legal practice, which Li says is the “world’s best litigation firm,” also “represented Tesla to sue Alameda County during the factory closure/reopening brouhaha,” he notes.

According to Li, the firm offered a reduced rate to file a suit to push for reopening, but the amount of money is still significant: It will cost the plaintiffs in the mid six-figures just to seek “a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction,” Li says. Given how tight finances are for every restaurant in the city, Li says that he’s hoping to spread the costs over a large group. With enough participants, the cost could be as low as $3,000 to $10,000 per plaintiff, maybe less, Li suggests.

Of course, even a couple thousand is a lot these days — and the strength in numbers Li is seeking might not be there. Of the recipients of Li’s email who were contacted by Eater SF, almost all who responded either said that they had no comment or would not be participating.

Very few were willing to speak on the record. Lazy Bear’s Dave Barzelay, a former lawyer himself, sent a statement via email that spoke critically of the city’s policies so far, saying that its “refusal to elucidate any standards or targets for when it would allow even reduced-capacity reopening makes the city’s decision-making seem arbitrary and ad hoc,and that it feels at best like the goalposts are constantly moving, and at worst like the decisions aren’t based on science at all, but rather on politics and optics.”

Despite that, Barzelay says, “a lawsuit seems a rather extreme (and costly) way” to get city officials to perform that elucidation, and that though he’s “carefully considering Hanson’s proposal,” he says that “the best-case scenario for restaurants and for taxpayers is that the city quickly provides more clarity and metrics for reopening indoor dining, and makes this lawsuit effort moot.” (You can read his full statement here.)

That lack of clear standards and targets that Barzelay cites was reiterated in several conversations Eater SF had over the course of reporting this article, with one prominent restaurant owner saying that Colfax has a “seemingly indifferent attitude with respect to the demise of restaurants” and another saying that city and county health officer Tomás Aragón “can’t explain why he makes the decisions he does.” These owners all agreed that takeout and outdoor dining cannot sustain their businesses for much longer, especially as the weather gets colder and nightfall comes earlier. “I’m not sure that indoor at 25 percent capacity will be enough,” one of the city’s best-known chefs tells Eater SF. “But it’s more money than we’re making now.”

While Colfax has been the public face of San Francisco’s health orders, speaking at most of the city’s COVID-19-focused press events, it’s Aragón who holds all the cards — and calls the shots. What reopens, including under what circumstances and when, is his decision, and his alone — while the mayor’s office can argue, they do not have the ability to override his decisions, nor does the city’s Board of Supervisors. (Here’s a May 20 memo from San Francisco’s city attorney’s office that lays out the breadth of Aragón’s powers.)

All this to say that a — thus far hypothetical — lawsuit will bet solely on its filers’ ability to intimidate Aragón, should they file. It’s an expensive gamble, especially for spots that are almost literally looking for change in the couch cushions to keep the lights on. (When contacted by Eater SF, John Coté, the spokesperson for the city attorney — who would defend SF in a suit like the one Li is proposing — says “we don’t comment on hypothetical lawsuits.”)

It’s worth noting that New York’s biggest restaurant lobby declined to participate in that city’s lawsuit, and the same is true in SF. Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, tells Eater SF that “all options were always on the table for us, but we were able to work collaboratively with government to start reopening at a 25 percent occupancy with a roadmap to 50 percent, while making it clear that none of this will save restaurants and we need a lot more ongoing support.”

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Laurie Thomas, Rigie’s counterpart at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA), San Francisco’s restaurant industry group. They, too, do not have an immediate plan to join in any suit, Thomas says. Like many others, she expressed fears that a lawsuit could derail the ongoing, diplomatic negotiations she and other leaders in the restaurant industry have been engaged in at City Hall.

According to Li, filing a lawsuit “would ensure that we get to indoor dining by October,” and “would pull up the indoor dining timeline by at least two months (assuming a December timeline if we don’t do anything) and potentially a lot more.” But what he’s really looking for — what all SF restaurant owners seem to be looking for — is just a plan from the city, a timeline, or dates. If that were announced, Li says, “along with a statement like ‘a, b, and c needs to happen,’ and then we can reopen,” he says he wouldn’t feel the need to continue down the litigation path.

But until then, Li says, he will continue to try to gauge support for a lawsuit, as it seems like the only way his industry might get the answers they seek. “If the restaurant industry doesn’t come out to support a lawsuit, then we know,” he says. “But right now, all everyone is looking for is some idea of what to expect.”

Here’s the text of Li’s email. Out of confidentiality concerns, some figures and his law firm’s name have been redacted:

(It’s a longish email – about 6 minute to read through. Tldr: I’d like to bring a lawsuit against the city on indoor dining a la NYC. I have talked to the world’s best litigation firm and they will represent our cause. They are giving a friends and family rate on a fixed fee basis but it’s still a lot. I am hoping you can respond via this form to indicate your support (or not). Thanks – Hanson)

Hi all, I think everyone here knows me but in case not – I own and run Salt Partners – Crenn Dining Group, Humphry Slocombe, B-Side at SFJAZZ, Horsefeather & Last Rites, Califorrito, Fat Buffalo, and Sunday at the Museum. I also cofounded LocoL with Roy and Daniel.

It’s been 2 weeks since CA state provided the new guidelines that would have allowed us in SF to open up indoor dining for 25% capacity. It’s also been 2 weeks since we’ve heard nothing but indifference from the city. I was particularly irked by this gem from the presser on 9/1: “At that point, Colfax interrupted himself to point out that outdoor dining and takeout are open, saying with a smile “certainly there are opportunities there.” Another least-favorite was the DPH tweeting out “it’s just too risky” in answer to indoor dining questions – basically saying ‘just trust us.’

I’ve heard that GGRA had had calls with the Mayor and her team including Dr. Colfax and Aragon the last 2 weeks. The latest, as reported, is that indoor dining is pretty low on their priority list and “TBD” or “December” or “next year” was bantered around. Beyond a date, I am further disappointed with the lack of transparency and the city’s capricious decision making for our industry. There’s no ‘plan’ that I have heard of. Today Colfax completely sidestepped a question for indoor dining with a whole lot of platitudes.

Which brings me to this: I’m sure all of you have seen NYC – a coalition of restaurants sued the city and the mayor for $2Bn. The restriction on indoor dining was lifted soon thereafter.

I want to be the squeaky wheel.

Tim Stennard (Bacchus – Spruce, The Saratoga, Village Pub, etc.) and I talked with partners at [redacted] last Friday to sue the city of SF. [Redacted] is the world’s largest litigation firm. For example, they represented Tesla to sue Alameda County during the factory closure/reopening bruhaha and John Hopkins against the Trump administration (in regards to sending students on visa back home). Tim talked with GGRA and it does not appear GGRA wants to lead this.

The goal is to either get SF to follow the state guidelines (i.e. we are now “Red” and therefore 25% would be allowed if any restaurant so chooses) OR give us a much clearer metrics on the path towards indoor dining. I fret about the coming rain, cold weather, and shorter days (daylight savings is just 7 weeks away). If we can’t get to indoor dining by Oct, then I don’t see how we can get to 50% capacity by November. (Aside 1: this raises the question/concern on whether anyone can manage a sustainable operation with 50% capacity, doing business in SF for the long term etc… I don’t pretend to offer solutions to these larger questions – the focus for this is just to give us the option to reopen and a path towards more indoor capacity). (Aside 2: reopening requires asking ourselves, our staff, and our guests to take on health risk. I have my opinion but certainly am no authority on the safety or the wisdom of reopening of our restaurants. My concern is that the people with the policy authority in SF do not have the discipline on establishing what that risk line is. Just as a 25 mph speed limit throughout the city is probably a safer speed – but yet the government and its people accept that 40 mph in some places is okay).

The lawsuite [sic] doesn’t come cheap. There are probably cheaper law firms to use but I think using [redacted] would ensure that we get to indoor dining by Oct. I believe that this lawsuit would pull up the indoor dining timeline by at least 2 months (assuming a Dec timeline if we don’t do anything) and potentially a lot more. The pessimist in me says that even as the attitude by SF city relaxes in terms of new cases, etc., the reopening of everything else (from schools, to churches, to gyms, to salons ) all will contribute to stats that will at best be flat and probably a rise. The restaurant industry is then forever behind the eight ball – they can continue to point to ‘worsening’ stats to indefinitely push off indoor dining.

ASK: I am hoping to get 75 ‘yes’ and [redacted] committed by end of this week to really get [redacted] going. I propose a sliding scale of $250 to $5000 contribution, with the average target of $2500 per business.

If we get to those goals then over the weekend, I would kick off these actions:

– The creation of a small committee (4 people) to spearhead this and coordinate with [redacted]

– Together, we would reach out to other colleagues for a broader coalition to recruit restaurants of all stripes and neighborhood. I recognize that the coalition needs to include a representation of all restaurants in the city.

– Start the equivalent of a GoFundMe to support the legal fund – I hope that our investor base can help seed the momentum of this GFM and bring more general population to demonstrate support

– Start a virtual auction for us to contribute our wares to raise money for this… just as what non-profits have asked all of us all these years

To get started, please fill out this simple form to indicate your support (or not). Please also forward to other restaurant owners you know and have them also fill out the form. Appreciate it. Hanson

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The Eater Guide on How to Help During the Crisis

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Not all that long ago it seemed like if the pandemic weren’t exactly over by now, then at least the worst of it would be. But the summer didn’t make things any simpler. Cases continued to spread, and fires and hurricanes ravaged the West and Gulf Coast. As the weather turned colder, more states began allowing indoor activities and face-to-face school. As a result, the virus appears to be surging once more. It is increasingly clear that not only will thousands more Americans likely die as a direct result of COVID-19 by the end of 2020, but the mass misery of the economic devastation it has unleashed — suffering disproportionately endured by Black and Latinx communities — will not lift anytime soon. 

Benefits like the federal $600 a week unemployment expansion ran out or contracted for more than 25 million Americans in July and the federal government has failed to agree on the terms of a new aid package. Organizations that provide food and housing assistance to low-income people across the country, already strained by the last several months of the pandemic and the government’s appallingly incompetent — and at times malevolent — response, are scrambling to meet a tidal wave of need. As roughly 40 percent of restaurants on the brink of closing forever, programs that aid people in the food industry are also seeking further support so they can continue to provide assistance to worker who remain unemployed or underemployed. Groups representing Indigenous communities, undocumented immigrants, farmworkers, and people of color are also mobilizing to get assistance to marginalized people and lay a foundation for a more resilient food system — because while it’s an extraordinary time of need, it’s also not new. 

Hunger and poverty have always been the U.S.’s most shameful open secrets. Despite being the wealthiest country in the world, as of 2018 more than 13 percent of people in the U.S. lived below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau, while a full 78 percent of U.S. workers lived paycheck to paycheck. The pandemic and its economic fallout have put those statistics into ever starker relief, as the nation’s working class and its poorest residents have faced the largest health burden from the virus. Several studies have estimated that pandemic-related job losses and increased food costs have roughly doubled food insecurity in the U.S., and No Kid Hungry estimates that one quarter of children around the country could face food insecurity in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus. 

In this guide, Eater has identified a range of programs, organizations, and charities fighting hunger, developing sustainable food networks, and providing support to the roughly 31 million people who are unemployed or are working less than they’d like to be due to this global medical disaster. These are places that are stepping in to do work in their communities where governments and elected officials have left people behind. Collected here are opportunities for giving and volunteering in and around the United States and its territories, at both the national and the local level, as well as in the U.K. Editors have done their best to vet the charities included here, but it’s always important to make sure when you give money or time that the organization you’re supporting aligns with your values and has a transparent, proven track record. If you only have time or resources to give, give it, but monetary donations — especially those offered over an extended period — can be even more impactful because charities tend to know where the greatest need is. If you’ve chosen a group and aren’t sure what’s the best way to help, it’s worth reaching out and asking.

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Trump Teases an ‘EPIC’ Election Night Party at His D.C. Hotel Despite Capacity Limits

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Despite D.C.’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, President Donald Trump’s campaign has teased plans to host a party for election night on Tuesday, November 3, at the Trump International Hotel downtown. Fundraising emails from Donald Trump Jr. include details on a “sweepstakes” to fly a supporter to D.C. for a party described in all-caps as “EPIC,” “ELECTRIC,” and “INCREDIBLE.”

Under D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions, mass gatherings are capped at a maximum capacity of 50 people. Restaurants are still limited to half-capacity seating with no standing and no countertop service from bartenders. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wasn’t aware of plans for the party until Monday, October 26, Washingtonian reports.

The location of the election night party is unclear, but the opulent hotel has multiple ballrooms and event spaces. The hotel includes a location of celebrity chef David Burke’s BLT Prime steakhouse. Lobby-level bar Benjamin serves $23 glasses of sangria and $120 seafood towers. Nearby, more affordable pub Harry’s has already seen pro-Trump crowds openly flouting mask requirements and other protocols meant to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Trump has consistently downplayed the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. After he survived a case, Trump told Americans, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

On election night four years ago, the recently opened hotel was the site of an impromptu and raucous gathering for supporters watching the numbers roll in on large TVs framing its gold bar. The controversial Pennsylvania Avenue hotel near the White House has been sold out for weeks on and around Election Day at rates going for $1,200 a night, the Associated Press reports.

The fine print in the sweepstakes notes the campaign can move the date of the trip and the location of the hotel stay at its discretion. The prize also includes a photo op with Trump. The supposedly randomly chosen winner, who is subject to a background check, will be responsible for all ground transportation, meals, and all other expenses during the duration of the trip.

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Eater Staffers Pick Their Favorite Instant Pot Recipes

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Now that we are over the sourdough-and-regrowing-scallions part of the pandemic, but in no way over the actual pandemic, we must prepare for The Hunkering. Every winter is a time for stews, roasts, and hearty pasta bakes, but this winter it feels extra important, both because most of us are going to be indoors way more than any previous season, and have completely lost the energy to do anything but throw a bunch of stuff in a pot. Which obviously means it’s time to break out the Instant Pots.

A few years ago it seemed like electric multicookers, especially the Instant Pot, may have just been a fad. But the fact that in one appliance you can cook anything from soup to pudding to bread makes it pretty ideal for cooking during quarantine fatigue. Eater’s staffers rounded up our favorite go-to Instant Pot recipes, perfect for the many nights when you’re in the mood for something delicious, but you know, wanting to do as little as possible to make it happen. And as Eater Dallas and Eater Houston editor Amy McCarthy noted, you could always go with “just some fucking chicken breasts,” and let the machine do the rest.


Beef barley soup: This is the first that comes to mind. It’s basically a textbook version of this classic soup, and perfect for chilly weather. It’s low-lift, reasonably quick to put together, and freezes well. — Missy Frederick, cities director

Dakbokkeumtang: I make this recipe when I’m craving a savory chicken dish with the volume turned up. All that delicious flavor comes from the sauce. It’s a perfect balance of sweet and spicy from gochujang and sugar. Doenjang and oyster sauce adds another layer of depth. Typically to make this Korean comfort dish, you would need to watch over the pot, making sure that the chicken pieces are soaking up the sauce. But everything is done in the Instant Pot, so the result is fall-off-the-bone, tender chicken with potatoes that just break apart with no effort at all. Also, who doesn’t love a dump-everything-and-press-the-button recipe?! — James Park, social media manager

Mac and cheese: I make this one once a week when I’m lazy and cooking sounds hard. I use whatever cheese is in the fridge, add a little brown mustard to the mix, and usually skip the milk or add it at the very end. Would suggest you grate the mozzarella or it becomes a blob. — Brenna Houck, editor at Eater Detroit

Chinese poached whole chicken: Basically, I get a whole chicken every week, and I got tired of roasting it. This recipe is a really easy — not entirely foolproof, but a good enough way to poach a chicken whole in about 40 to 50 minutes, with not too much work on my part. You can use it specifically as white-cut chicken over rice with, say, a ginger scallion sauce, but just as often I pull the meat off the carcass and use it for meals throughout the week. Two caveats: You really do need an instant-read thermometer to tell when it’s done, and I find it’s much better to salt the chicken 24 hours in advance (I use the method in Salt Fat Acid Heat), so it has enough taste. And after poaching the chicken and pulling off the meat, I often toss the carcass right back into its cooking liquid, cook it on manual for another 60 minutes, and end up with a bunch of chicken stock. — Meghan McCarron, special correspondent

Kosha mangsho: This is a traditional Bengali goat or lamb stew in a heavily spiced, yogurt gravy, and it’s intensely rich and comforting. This recipe uses a pressure cooker to save time, but on the offchance you landed on this page and don’t have an Instant Pot or the like, you can still just simmer it in a large pot. — Jaya Saxena, staff writer

Lemongrass coconut chicken: The sauce is unbelievably tasty for just a few ingredients and it comes together so quickly. The labor to flavor ratio makes it one of my go-tos when I get bored with cooking or can’t be bothered to put in much effort. It’s also great over rice or any other grain. — Brittanie Shey, Eater Houston and Eater Dallas associate editor

Basic chicken noodle soup: I make a basic chicken noodle soup in the Instant Pot probably every week in the winter: The base recipe is two chicken breasts, a carton and a half of broth, a few cups (I eyeball it) roughly chopped diced celery, carrot, and onion, and whatever spices you want. Cook everything together on high pressure for 25 mins. You can quick-release the pressure and remove the chicken breasts, and shred them — while you’re shredding, set the pot’s saute function so the broth remains boiling and add egg noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, dump the shredded chicken back in and you’re done! This is perfect because frozen chicken works just as well (and at the same cook time), and you can experiment with any leafy greens at the end (throw them in when you add the noodles) and any noodle types you want. — Erin DeJesus, lead editor, Eater.com

Pork chile verde: This recipe is very good; I found it last year when I had a truckload of tomatillos from my garden. It is a great comfort food and works well as stew or tacos. — Brenna Houck, Editor at Eater Detroit

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