More restaurants are serving meals with a side of politics.
In the month since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, local bars, restaurants and cafes have staged politically laced fundraisers and bake sales. Still others have designated their eateries "sanctuaries" that promise a safe and tolerant atmosphere for both employees and customers. Food business owners are, increasingly, wearing their politics on their sleeve. Many times, that comes with big risks.
Some restaurateurs say their efforts are an extension of their long-standing political views, while others say the decision to take action — whether it be closing to allow employees to participate in a political protest or sending food to support immigration lawyers working with those affected by the administration's travel ban — "is just the right thing to do." The restaurant industry, after all, is one of the largest employers of immigrants in the U.S.
Industry experts say it's best for restaurant owners to keep their political views to themselves, but acknowledge that's a difficult task in the current political environment, no matter which side of the aisle one falls on.
Of course, expressing liberal political views is not as big of a risk in a city that tends to lean heavily to the left. Cook County went decisively for Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, and donations by local restaurateurs skewed strongly Democratic as well, based on a search of political donations on OpenSecrets.org.
But even in places like Chicago, experts say it's always better for business owners to stay mum.
"The safest bet is to stay away from politics," said Darren Tristano president of the food research firm Technomic. In the case of recent fundraisers, he added: "it's more likely that you'll end up turning more people off on the right than bringing in more of the left."
However, Tristano said that it's understandable for chefs and restaurateurs to be concerned about immigrant crackdowns that could have significant impacts on the industry.
About 1 in 4 employees in the restaurant industry are foreign-born, and the industry is also one of the largest employers of workers who are in the country illegally, according to government data.
"The restaurant industry has a lot to lose and quite frankly the American public does too," Tristano said.
"Restaurants want to become more politically involved, and that's reflective of the country as a whole," he added. "We're more divided, but we're more engaged too. Americans, especially the next generation, want a voice."
Michael Roper, owner of the Hopleaf bar and restaurant in Andersonville, said his moves since the election are part of a long-standing effort to raise money for causes he believes in.
"Our version of doing good has been good for business," Roper said. "There are always people who say they will not come to Hopleaf because of (our stances) or leave nasty reviews on Yelp. But I would say most of our customers are on board."
On Inauguration Day, Roper dubbed Hopleaf a "No Trump Zone" and donated the day's sales to Planned Parenthood because of concern about possible legislation that would limit access to abortion services. It was the busiest day in Hopleaf's 25-year history, Roper said.
Hopleaf has held a number of fundraisers for charities related to social justice, the environment and public education.
"We have certain causes that we are not ashamed to say we support," he said.
Roper said he didn't get any backlash from his efforts until Inauguration Day, when he got a long letter from a customer who said she voted for Trump and wouldn't be coming back.
"It's her right not to shop at a place that offends her politics," Roper said. "I'm all for somebody coming in (and sharing their views) too. We like to have civil debate over a pint of beer. That's tavern life.
"But you have to be willing to listen, and we on the left have to be equally tolerant. It's a weird time because there's not a lot of listening going on."
In the future, Roper said he will continue to raise money for causes he believes in, but he'll work to keep the focus positive.
That was a lesson learned most notably on Inauguration Day.
Roper acknowledges now that declaring Hopleaf a "No Trump Zone" "was a bit over the top."
"We've never had any negative (reactions) until Inauguration Day," he said.
"It's probably better in this climate to be positive," he added. "And using our business as a conduit for that is a good thing."
There are some causes that Roper is uneasy about participating in.
He says he's "on the fence" about whether to join the sanctuary restaurant movement, a joint effort by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, an organization that advocates for higher food industry wages, and Presente.org, an advocacy group for Latin American immigrants.
The movement urges restaurants, bars and cafes to proclaim they are safe places to work and dine, regardless of a person's immigration status, race, religion or gender identity.
"By joining the movement, I worry I may be putting my immigrant workers at risk," said Roper, who fears making Hopleaf the target of raids by immigration officials. "They all have green cards, and Social Security numbers, but they're nervous for their cousins, brothers — or that their legitimate papers might be taken away from them. Other times I would say I'm not afraid, but in these times, you never know."
Hopleaf also didn't participate in the recent Day Without Immigrants protest, because Roper didn't want his staff to go without tips for the day.
"We had an employee deported once. He missed an immigration hearing and ran a stop sign. So I know there are millions of people who are on the edge of being kicked out and having their lives turned upside down," he said.
"For those of us who are lucky enough to have our immigrant past a generation or two behind us, we have to stand up."
The Day Without Immigrants took place across the U.S. on Feb. 16. Prominent Chicago restaurants including The Berghoff, four restaurants owned by chef Rick Bayless and fine dining spot Acadia closed, while several other restaurants and cafes offered employees the day off with pay.
Ryan McCaskey, Acadia's chef and owner, said he felt compelled to participate after he saw travelers stopped at airports following Trump's executive order barring entry to the U.S. for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Implementation of the order was later blocked by federal courts.
"The most powerful person in the world is generating all this fear. It's tough to be quiet about," he said.
McCaskey, an immigrant who was adopted as a toddler from Saigon by a Palatine couple near the end of the Vietnam War, first published his plan to close on Facebook.
The reaction was "98 percent positive, but there was 2 percent who were telling me to go back to Vietnam and things like that on social media," he said, adding that customers were "very understanding" when called to reschedule their reservations.
McCaskey employs three cooks who are in the U.S. on work visas, and he said Acadia usually brings in "a few visa interns, from China, India, Vietnam ... and none of them are illegal."
"I think right now it's very important that we as a country make our voices heard," he said. "When our civil rights are being encroached upon, it makes a difference to all of us."
McCaskey said he will continue to "closely monitor" political developments and protests and "when we can stand up, we will."
"Coming up in the restaurant industry, it was just a normal thing that there were illegal immigrants in the kitchen," he said. "At the end of the day, we just like people who work hard and do their jobs. That's how black and white it is. It makes sense our voice in the industry is strong and it is heard."
That was the impetus behind the sanctuary restaurant movement, which started in January, its creators say.
"Workers of color all feel vulnerable, and our industry is the largest employer of those vulnerable," said Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of ROC United. "We thought we could build a proactive agenda."
There are about a dozen sanctuary restaurants in the Chicago area, including Avondale's Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Bistro Champagne in Ravenswood and Brightwork Kitchen in the Loop. Participants outside the city include Sovereign in Plainfield, Dunning's Market in Homewood and Edzo's Burger Shop Betpas in Evanston.
More than 200 restaurants are participating nationwide, Jayaraman said.
"Our industry faces tremendous challenges: The worst labor shortage in history and very low wages," she said. "Now these (immigrant workers) are not only struggling just to survive but feeling this tremendous amount of fear. Deportation means being taken away from your family, being put in jail, in many cases their children are taken away and put in the American foster care system. It's way more than people realize."
Jayaraman said the focus for restaurateurs' political actions recently has been on immigration in large part because of the makeup of its workers, but also because of what restaurants mean as a whole in our society.
"Restaurants are where our culture happens: breaking bread and sharing a meal," she said. "These things are all connected."
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