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How a Day Without Immigrants Affects Restaurants

Some say it will cost them tens of thousands of dollars, but it's worth it

What would America look like without immigrants? The satirical 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican explored this very idea, examining the massive disruption that would occur if one-third of California’s population suddenly vanished. Fueled by the Trump administration’s immigration ban and a recent surge of ICE raids and deportations across the nation, not to mention the President’s own repeated anti-immigrant comments, today a nationwide boycott aims for immigrants to show their fellow Americans — and the government — what the country would look like without their contributions.

The movement, which has been dubbed “the Day Without Immigrants” in a nod to the aforementioned movie, urges people to stay home from work and school, to close their businesses, and to refrain from buying anything on Thursday in order to show the impact that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, have on the U.S. and its economy. News of the boycott seems to have spread organically via social media and word of mouth, rather than being backed by any one group in particular, and because of that, it’s tough to say just how many people are participating.

But restaurants will undoubtedly feel the effects, and many — from small family-owned operations in Los Angeles and Detroit to huge restaurant groups run by celebrity chefs like José Andrés and Rick Bayless — have decided to close their doors today to support their employees.

It’s no secret that immigrant labor is the backbone of the American restaurant industry; though the chefs who win Michelin stars, Beard Awards, and other accolades are overwhelmingly white and male, a look in most restaurant kitchens — whether it’s a Burger King or a pricey destination restaurant — will reveal a back-of-house workforce that’s at least partially made up of foreign-born workers. According to a 2008 Pew study, 28 percent of dishwashers and nearly 20 percent of cooks working in U.S. restaurants are undocumented immigrants, and under the Trump administration, the danger of being deported is now particularly urgent.

As a famously liberal city that’s now home to a President who’s referred to immigrants as rapists, drug-smugglers, and terrorists, it’s no surprise that the epicenter of today’s movement seems to be in Washington, D.C. Dozens of restaurants have pledged to stay closed today, including, not surprisingly, some owned by the city’s prominent immigrant restaurateurs.

Busboys and Poets, one of D.C.’s most political restaurants that once hosted President Obama for lunch, is closing all six of its locations today, a move that owner Andy Shallal says will cost “tens of thousands of dollars.” For Shallal, who was born in Iraq and once ran for mayor, the choice was clear. “As an immigrant myself, I have to speak up,” he says. “Staying on the sidelines in these times is no longer an option. We need true immigration reform that considers the human aspect of immigration — not just building walls, hiring agents, and expanding prisons.”

Meanwhile, five of chef José Andrés’s restaurants in the area — Oyamel, Zaytinya, and the three locations of Jaleo — all kept their doors closed today. Andres, who emigrated from Spain in the early ‘90s and became a U.S. citizen in 2013, has been a highly visible arm of the opposition to the Trump administration’s anti-immigration stance: Last year he abandoned plans to open a restaurant inside the Trump Hotel D.C. after Trump made disparaging comments about immigrants on the campaign trail.

A spokesperson for Andrés’s restaurant group declined to comment on how much the one-day closures would cost the company, but did say that several of its other restaurants — China Chilcano, the high-dollar tasting menu spot minibar, and all locations of fast-casual Beefsteak — would remain open “so that we can continue to both serve our guests as well as provide for those of our staff who plan to work that day.” (Andres’s restaurants in other cities such as Las Vegas and LA will also remain open, which is one way for restaurants with multiple outlets to mitigate losses.)

At El Burrito Mercado, a popular Mexican market and restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota that employs 200 people, management and workers collectively decided the closure was worth it. “I think it is [a big sacrifice],” says owner Analita Silva. “We all know in our heads how much we’ll be losing. It’s a Thursday, so typically a busy day for us right before the weekend. But our business was built by immigrants, my grandparents, and at the end of the day it’s worth it for us to support our employees and all immigrants.”

Latino Workers Stay Home For 'Day Without Immigrants' Protest Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Other restaurant owners are closing in solidarity with their employees, or with the immigrant community as a whole. Ruth Gresser, chef-owner of D.C.’s Pizzeria Paradiso, is keeping two locations closed today in support of staff participating in the strike, while a third remains open. All staff will be paid for the day, and though Gresser is uncertain of the financial impact today will have, she says, “Our show of support for our hardworking staff certainly outweighs the potential loss of business.”

Otto Phan, chef-owner of Austin’s Kyoten Sushiko, doesn’t currently employ any immigrants, but Phan says he’s closing in solidarity. “Mexican immigrants have been a big part of my development as a sushi chef,” he says, “and I want to acknowledge a community that’s been a very big part of developing my restaurant into what it is today.”

Texas’s economy depends heavily on immigrants, particularly from Mexico; restaurants in San Antonio and Austin were targeted last week in ICE raids, with some forced to shutter as employees feared coming to work could result in detainment or deportation. Today, restaurants closed all over Austin in response. Phan points out that since his restaurant has just eight seats, deciding to close today was an easy decision. “From a financial standpoint, it’s not a big issue for this style of restaurant,” he says. “I’ll be out revenue of maybe $200.”

In New York City, Manhattan’s Blue Ribbon restaurant group, the force behind Blue Ribbon Sushi, Brooklyn Bowl, and several other concepts, has shuttered all seven of its restaurants for the day, a decision that affects more than 500 employees.

“We stand 100 percent behind our employees — whether they are immigrants or born in America, back of house or front of house,” the company wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. “When employees who haven’t missed a day of work in nearly 25 years come to you and ask for a day off to march against injustice, the answer is easy.” Though the group did not comment on how much revenue it stands to lose today, partner Eric Bromberg told Eater NY, “This is not a casual decision. But there are times in life when money isn’t the most important thing.”

Chains have remained mostly silent on the issue — it’s hard to imagine a corporate behemoth like McDonald’s or Applebee’s coming out in support of a political movement that would stand to largely interrupt its day-to-day operations, not to mention alienate much of its customer base — but at least one has come out in support of the Day Without Immigrants. Cultishly adored, D.C.-based fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen is closing all 18 of its area locations, making it one of the larger companies to throw its weight behind the strike. Sweetgreen will pay all its employees today, saying in a statement, “Our diversity is what makes this family great, and we respect our team members' right to exercise their voice in our democracy.” Though Sweetgreen has dozens of additional locations across the country including California and New York, those 18 locations make up more than one-quarter of its total footprint.

Many other restaurants are staying open today, but still making an effort to show solidarity in other ways. In Atlanta, for instance, the Chai Pani Restaurant Group is keeping its restaurants open but donating 100 percent of profits to the ACLU, while Billy and Kristin Allin’s restaurants — Cakes & Ale, Proof Bakeshop, and Bread & Butterfly — will donate the day’s profits to United We Dream, a nonprofit that supports immigrant youth and families.

Of course, many restaurants that are proceeding with business as usual today will still be forced to confront the effects of a Day Without Immigrants: At the Theodore in Dallas, for example, a number of kitchen employees joined the strike and walked out on their shifts today, leaving other staffers to pinch-hit for them. Others, such as a Torchy’s Tacos location in Houston, have simply been forced to close due to staff shortages.

Whether or not a Day Without Immigrants manages to have any real political impact will remain to be seen, but for now many of the nation’s restaurants are making it clear that they don’t take the value of their immigrant workforce lightly. The restaurant group behind Brickwall Tavern in Asbury, New Jersey, which is open today but giving all its back-of-house employees a paid day off in support of the strike, said in a statement, “We are one family. And when part of our family is affected, we are all affected.”

Whitney Filloon is Eater's senior reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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