On August 7, the internet buzzed with threats of boycotts over the fact that billionaire real estate developer Stephen Ross planned to host a fundraiser for President Donald Trump in his Hamptons home. According to the Washington Post, the Friday fundraiser cost at minimum $100,000 per head, with all of that money going to Trump Victory, a committee fundraising for the Trump 2020 campaign and the Republican National Committee.
The event, although high-priced as these things go, may have passed by unnoticed if not for Ross’s ties to several massively popular businesses, including high-end fitness brands Equinox and SoulCycle and a number of restaurants. As celebrities and activists pointed out this connection on Twitter, public outrage grew.
Equinox and SoulCycle were the initial targets for boycotts, with celebrities like Billy Eichner publicly announcing that they were cancelling their memberships. But Ross’s connections to restaurants, including Milk Bar and the Momofuku restaurants, for which he is an investor, quickly became a part of the conversation. And although calls to boycott Stephen Ross-related restaurants haven’t gained quite as much steam as calls to boycott his other investments, some restaurateurs have felt compelled to speak out against Ross and his Trump support. Here’s everything you need to know.
Just contacted @Equinox to cancel my membership after many years. Money talks, especially with these monsters. If it’s too inconvenient for u to trade one LUXURY GYM for another, then you should be ashamed. (No disrespect to the many wonderful employees at my local Equinox). Bye!— billy eichner (@billyeichner) August 7, 2019
Who is Stephen Ross?
Ross is a billionaire New York-based real estate developer. He founded his real estate firm Related Companies and its offshoot RSE Ventures, a private investment firm that’s invested in several lifestyle and restaurant brands — with major plans to grow its restaurant portfolio. Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins.
Ross has a history of donating to Republican candidates, but is also known for his philanthropy. He started Ross Initiative for Sports Equality, a nonprofit that “educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice, and improve race relations,” a mission he somehow squares with his support for Trump. Nevertheless, no one should be surprised that Ross is a proud conservative: In 2018 he proclaimed that “all [Miami Dolphins] players will be standing” during the national anthem, following protests led by Colin Kaepernick and subsequent Trump tweets that characterized these protests as anti-military.
What restaurants is he tied to?
Ross has stakes in David Chang’s Momofuku empire, Christina Tosi’s dessert brand Milk Bar, Australian cafe chain Bluestone Lane, and fast-casual restaurant &Pizza. His firm also developed New York City’s new $25 billion development Hudson Yards, which houses nearly three dozen food businesses, including José Andrés’s Spanish food hall Mercado Little Spain. In fall 2018, RSE Ventures CEO Matt Higgins told Eater NY its portfolio could eventually contain as many as 10 restaurant concepts, meaning there’s potential room for another half-dozen food businesses to get a RSE cash infusion.
How have restaurants responded to the Trump event?
On August 7, Equinox Fitness (which includes SoulCycle, Pure Yoga, and Blink Fitness) released a statement disavowing the Trump fundraiser and characterizing Ross as a “passive investor.” Just a few restaurant owners are following suit. Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi released a statement the following day stating that Milk Bar “is in no way affiliated” with Stephen Ross’s Trump fundraiser and clarified that she does not personally support the policies of the Trump administration but does support “people having their own opinion.”
On an episode of his podcast The David Chang Show, Momofuku’s David Chang promised to double-down on his own progressive efforts after learning about Ross. “I personally am a staunch opponent to President Trump and everything he stands for. I fucking hate him. Anyone that normalizes gun violence, white supremacy, putting kids into cages, his general lack of decency and respect for anyone else — he is destroying our democratic norms. I cannot stand behind him,” he stated.
After clarifying that he welcomes all political values on his staff so long as people are respectful of one another, he implored Ross to cancel the fundraiser, saying, “It flies in the face of everything we believe in at Momofuku. It frightens many of the people that work for you and it contradicts what I hoped to accomplish before taking your money in the first place.”
José Andrés took a similar tack and posted a video to Twitter urging Ross to cancel the fundraiser. “I was a bit surprised,” he says of Ross’s fundraiser. He calls Ross “a good man” and “true American” who supports many of the same causes as Andrés, but said that in these abnormal times, “we all should be supporting the majority — and I do believe if you are republican or democrat, the vast majority of Americans believes we have no space for hate.” Andrés has frequently used Twitter to speak out against Trump. He ended his latest, “Please, Steve, do the right thing and don’t support this fundraising.”
I respect a person’s right to politically support who he chooses but these are not normal times!. So I ask u Steve Ross to use your conscience! Cancel this fundraiser for @realDonaldTrump You are a good man.Don’t support a candidate whose goal is to drive my beloved USA apart! pic.twitter.com/mTMhCZsmzl— José Andrés (@chefjoseandres) August 8, 2019
In response to the controversy, Ross hasn’t wavered, telling Bloomberg, “I always have been an active participant in the democratic process. I have known Donald Trump for 40 years, and while we agree on some issues, we strongly disagree on many others and I have never been bashful about expressing my opinions.”
He went on to say he “will continue to be, an outspoken champion of racial equality, inclusion, diversity, public education and environmental sustainability, and I have and will continue to support leaders on both sides of the aisle to address these challenges.”
What happened after the fundraiser?
Despite the protests, Ross went on to host his Hamptons fundraiser. The event, along with a second Hamptons fundraiser, raised $12 million for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.
In further protest of Ross’s Trump support, Momofuku donated profits from every New York City Momofuku restaurant to charity, Eater NY reports. The profits from Ko, Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Fuku, and Kāwi went to organizations including Planned Parenthood, gun control advocate Everytown, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and environmental organization Sierra Club.
The donations won’t end there. According to the Los Angeles Times, an email newsletter from Momofuku announced: “Throughout the month, a portion of proceeds from sales will be donated to City Harvest as well as these organizations that support causes we care about: Everytown, Planned Parenthood, RAICES Texas, Sierra Club and the Serge Ibaka Foundation.”
Update: August 13, 2019, 11:00 a.m.: This story was originally published on August 8, 2019. It has been updated throughout to reflect the latest information.
• Billionaire owner of SoulCycle, Miami Dolphins faces backlash over Trump fundraiser [Washington Post]
• Chef José Andrés Asks His Hudson Yards Landlord Stephen Ross to Drop Trump Fundraiser [ENY]
• Equinox, SoulCycle respond to calls for boycott over owner’s Trump ties [ABC]
• David Chang Donates All Momofuku Profits Friday Following Stephen Ross’s Trump Fundraiser [ENY]
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.