In mid-May, ten members of the restaurant industry traveled to the White House to have a roundtable discussion with President Trump and his staff to explain the shortcomings of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as it applied to restaurants. The PPP loans were extended, which was great news for the industry, but the roundtable event was not without controversy.
As observed by the Washington Post and Eater, Asheville, North Carolina-based restaurateur Katie Button was on a list of names given to the White House to attend the event but was not chosen. Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) co-founder Tom Colicchio told the Post it was unclear who asked that Button not be included, but some have since speculated that she was excluded due to being female. At the very least, that aligns with the fact that the 3 members of the IRC who ended up in the room with President Trump, in addition to seven others from the industry at large, were all men, but there’s no way to truly know the White House’s motivations for who was a part of the discussion.
“We wanted a woman up there, and they said now,” Colicchio told the Post.
Ultimately, the moment was overshadowed not only by the PPP loan being extended from an eight-week period to a 24-week period, but also by the racial tensions the country has experienced over the past couple of weeks.
“I don’t want to make assumptions on why I was singled out,” Button says. “And, of course, I would love to see more diversity, like women, and people of color, and smaller operators in general in the room with a voice, because our needs are unique and our stories are unique. But we were lucky in that [IRC co-founder] Will Guidara did make our points that we wanted to get across and he made sure that we did have that voice.”
Button’s road to owning two restaurants in downtown Asheville is nothing short of unique, and might begin to inform why she was initially included on the IRC’s shortlist of those who would best represent them at the White House. Button grew up in South Carolina, but eventually moved on to conduct her undergraduate studies at Cornell University. After that, she moved on to a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at a university in Paris. It was around that time that she pivoted toward her passion for cooking, and began training professionally in Europe, and subsequently back home in the states, under industry names such as José Andrés and Jean-Gorges. It was in 2011 that she opened Cúrate, a Spanish tapas full-service restaurant in downtown Asheville for which she’s received numerous accolades—in 2018, Wine Enthusiast named Cúrate a top 100 restaurant in the country.
Button and her restaurant group opened and closed Nightbell (2014-2019), an upscale cocktail bar with a modern bar menu, also in Asheville, but in 2018 they opened Button & Co. Bagels, a quick-serve located underneath Nightbell. Even with the 24-week extension to the PPP loans that she and the rest of the IRC spent time lobbying for, Button isn’t sure her two remaining businesses will make it. She’s hopeful, and believes the extension was a step in the right direction, but big questions loom over her and the entire industry.
“In some ways, this extension is punting the problem four months down the road,” Button says. “Because we’re not talking about an eight-week, or 24-week problem here. This is an 18-month problem. But hey, I love punting in this case, because before this extension I was facing the end of my restaurant group coming up pretty rapidly. And now is when we have to come together as an industry and start being proactive and very clear about the things we are asking for that will be required to survive this.”
One of the IRC’s major sticking points in ongoing discussions with lawmakers is a stabilization fund capable of providing revenue to restaurants as they continue to fight their way out of the current mess. Since the idea was floated at the end of April, the IRC has been aiming for those stabilization funds to be earmarked to prioritize minority-owned businesses.
Button herself is passionate about the movement to help give a voice to those in the industry who may have been historically overlooked.
“I think we have to find a way to be a voice for those people who haven’t traditionally had a voice,” Button says. “The way things work is that you have someone in the back, you pass them the microphone so that they can speak up. In this world, that is what we need to do, you have to actively seek out ways to give those who haven’t had the same opportunities offered to them the same access to the resources that will be required to bounce back from this.”
Chef Greg Baxtrom’s recent appeal to restaurateurs of color to use the kitchen at his currently-closed Maison Yaki space in New York is an example Button points to of change in action.
Despite the current moment she finds her and her restaurants in, Button has spent the last couple of weeks reflecting on how her race may have influenced her own career arc.
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“I always thought it was this superpower of mine to be able to take risks,” Button says. “I opened a business, I opened another one, I had a business fail—I made it through all of that, and I really believed it was this characteristic I had that made me capable of doing that, but you know what it actually was? It was my privilege, and my place in the community that has made me feel that I have a safety net under me. The color of your skin is a huge factor in how many opportunities you get in this country. We have to find a way to have more black-owned businesses in this country, and to rally around and support the ones that are already there and may be on the verge of going out of business.”
How are all of these things connected? Independent restaurant owners have historically lacked a voice that matches the number of people they employ throughout the country, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that many of those businesses are minority-owned—the NRA reported that between 2007 and 2012, there was a 40 percent increase nationwide in minority ownership of restaurants. And make no mistake, it was difficult for smaller restaurants to obtain PPP loans, especially if they did not have a reliable relationship with a bank. There was also a clause in the PPP loan bill that did not allow business owners with felonies on their record to apply, something that disproportionately affects minority business owners.
“There’s something going on here, which is that the haves continue to thrive, well the have-nots get hit hardest by something like COVID-19,” Button says. “It’s very clear that minorities and the black community in particular struggle to make it up into these conversations that are being had in Washington and elsewhere about where we go from here. This is a problem we have to fight like hell against, to make sure those voices are heard.”