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Update, May 3: Over the weekend, the Bowser administration added three new community members to the ReOpen DC committee on restaurants and food. Andrew Kline is an attorney at Veritas Law who frequently represents hospitality industry businesses and the Restaurant Association for Metropolitan Washington. Chef Spike Mendelsohn brings experience as a restaurateur and has also served on the D.C. Food Policy Council. Anwar Saleem is the executive director of H Street Main Street.
Mayor Muriel Bowser announced today which city leaders she has appointed to help the District relaunch following COVID-19. The so-called ReOpen DC Advisory Group counts Secretary Michael Chertoff and Ambassador Susan Rice as two of its chief overall advisors. But ReOpen DC also has 11 committees tied to specific sectors, like “real estate and construction” and “transportation and infrastructure.”
One relatively high stakes group is the committee on restaurants and food retailers, which have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In a good year, according to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt, hotels, restaurants, and bars provide half of the city’s $1.6 billion in annual sales tax revenue. But now, as bars and restaurants are limited to take-out and delivery, many have temporarily closed and don’t know if they’ll survive. (Hotels have their own group.)
One might think a committee aimed at helping restaurants and food retailers rebound from an economic crisis would be comprised of stakeholders who have experience in the very industries the city is trying to save. But instead, the cast of characters involved in ReOpen DC’s restaurant committee includes government workers, artists, architects, and nonprofit leaders.
Its co-chairs, at least, make sense. There’s Ernest Chrappah from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs; restaurateur and humanitarian José Andrés; and Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger. D.C.’s Director of Nightlife and Culture, Shawn Townsend, is listed an associate co-chair.
But then there are the community members who also make up the committee. Only one is a restaurateur—Andy Shallal from Busboys & Poets. The others are: Marnique Heath from STUDIOS Architecture; Kim Ford from Martha’s Table; local artist and designer Maggie O’Neill; Rudy Seikaly from MCN Build; Ona Balkus from the DC Food Policy Council; Dyana Forrester from the United Food & Commercial Workers Union; Donovan Anderson and Fred Moosally from the Alcohol Beverage Regulation Administration; and Robin “Diggs” Perdue, Arian Gibson, and Jackie Watson from the Department of Health.
The scope of the restaurant and food retailer committee spans restaurants, pubs, outdoor and indoor food markets, grocery stores, bars, food trucks, and food delivery services. According to the ReOpen DC website, the committee’s job will be “to make recommendations on safe opening and recommend a tool box of strategies that restaurateurs will need to re-open, DC permits, licensing and inspections will be examined, as well innovations in food delivery revealed by the pandemic response.”
So where are small grocers like Glen’s Garden Market? Where is the DMV Food Truck Association? Where are representatives from Eastern Market or the fish market at The Wharf? Where are restaurant and bar workers? Where are the big thinkers, outside of Shallal and Andrés, who shaped the D.C. dining and drinking scene into what it is today?
According to the mayor’s office, Bowser personally chose each member of the ReOpen DC Advisory Group. A spokesperson tells City Paper, “the Mayor’s ReOpen DC Advisory Group is comprised of District influencers and thought leaders who bring a vast array of experience, and tasked with providing recommendations on the necessary strategies to reopen safely.”
While the committee members certainly contribute to life in D.C., the question is if they’re in the best position to understand and articulate the needs of restaurants and food retailers whose businesses are on the line.
Hollinger from RAMW is working with other restaurant associations across the country to chart a path forward when the time comes for restaurants and bars to reopen in phases. She says the consensus is that health officials should lead, and industry decision-making should follow. While she was aware she was a co-chair of ReOpen DC’s committee on restaurants and food retailers, she didn’t know who was tapped to make up the rest of the group, which suggests she wasn’t consulted on the matter.
“I would hope that this is a starting point,” Hollinger says. “And that they will also look to co-chairs to specifically offer recommendations on people in the industry operating day in and day out who will be able to offer some insights and best practices.”
Khalid Pitts, who co-owns Cork Wine Bar & Market, is happy to see Hollinger, Shallal, and Andrés involved, but also hopes the committee members the mayor’s office appointed are just the beginning. “I’m disappointed in the make-up of the committee,” he says. “I don’t see owner-operators who are in their shops every day, including women and people of color.”
He names Daniella Senior of Colada Shop and Jill Tyler of Tail Up Goat as individuals who could add to the conversation. Tyler helped form the DC Hospitality Coalition. “I’m hoping it can grow from here,” Pitts continues. “Everyone is under tremendous pressure. This is unprecedented. It means thinking outside the box.”