Independents’ Day: Foodie Website Founder Don Rockwell Starts A New Restaurant Association
By his own estimate, Don Rockwell eats approximately 700 restaurant meals a year, spending nearly $30,000 of his modest computer consultant’s salary at high and low-end establishments alike. Rockwell reviews many of those meals in minute detail on his eponymous food board, which he founded in 2005 and which has become a prime local destination for chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, and diners, many of whom engage with DonRockwell.com on a weekly or daily basis.
Between his prodigious eating habits and his online gastronomic gathering place, Rockwell has accumulated a lot of knowledge about the local dining scene—and the people and organizations that comprise it. He knows, for example, that many of the folks who have waited on him and cooked for him lack health insurance. He knows the frustrations of restaurant owners who must battle the District’s bureaucracy to even open for business. And he especially knows about their frustrations with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, the trade group established to promote and protect the hospitality industry’s interests.
One of those exasperated restaurateurs is Michael Landrum, the man behind Ray’s the Steaks, Ray’s the Classics, and Ray’s Hell Burger. His regular comments on Rockwell’s boards include this Oct. 28 salvo, fired the day after RAMW split with its parent organization, the National Restaurant Association: “They are a self-serving, parasitical organization where often-times the parasite has grown larger than its hosts. They are openly hostile to employee’s rights,” Landrum wrote. “One thing to be clear, they do not, do not, represent or work on behalf of independent restaurants, restaurant workers, farmers or chefs.”
In an interview, Landrum levels a few other charges. “RAMW is an organization that uses its substantial financial clout to enrich itself,” he tells me. What’s more, he adds, the organization’s “political agenda is hostile to what most people would consider the interests of the restaurant community as a whole.”
By that, Landrum means that RAMW’s lobbying hasn’t always represented the best interests of either restaurant workers or restaurant eaters. Fighting against a higher minimum wage, for instance, may please owners, but it undercuts the line cooks, bussers, and others employees who rely on those meager salaries. Likewise, RAMW’s efforts to exempt bartenders and wait staff from the District’s Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2008 took away basic rights from hundreds of workers. And RAMW efforts directed at battling food trucks, smoking bans, and menu labels have also tended to favor traditional brick-and-mortar owners over everyone from street vendors to diners who’d prefer clean restaurant air.
Rockwell doesn’t have answers for all of these issues, or even most of them, but does have a vision for the future of the local hospitality industry. He has tentatively started an organization, the Association of Independent Restaurants, which will attempt to harness the collective power of the area’s independent restaurants to assist both management and workers. Rockwell wants to offer discount group health insurance for line cooks, wait staff, bar backs, and everyone else who needs it. He wants to put quality ingredients in the hands of smaller restaurants by pooling their purchases and negotiating lower prices. He wants to help employees get work visas, and he wants to help restaurateurs negotiate the cumbersome process of establishing an eatery in the District and elsewhere.
Rockwell is still a long way from accomplishing these goals. At present, he doesn’t have an office, employees, a budget, or even a solid business plan. He just has a domain name (air-dc.com) and a desire. “I see a need that needs to be filled, and I want to fill it,” Rockwell says over lunch at Circle Bistro last week. “I view [AIR] as more a complementary thing than a takeover attempt” of RAMW.
What Rockwell does have, however, is the support from some influential people in the industry, like Landrum, chef Eric Ziebold of CityZen, and Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve.
He also has his own frustrations with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington to motivate him. Like the annual RAMMY awards, where it remains a mystery as to how or why a restaurant earns a win or gets nominated. Or the association’s bi-annual Restaurant Week, in which participating RAMW members offer three-course lunch and dinner menus for around $20 and $35 respectively. Rockwell, for one, thinks this is not a deal for anyone, unless they’re dining at one of the area’s few fine-dining palaces.
“I think the dining public is being absolutely duped by this,” he says. He’d like his organization to work with restaurants to offer discount menus year-around, perhaps at off hours or on slow week days.
Restaurant Week is sore spot for some restaurateurs, too. Not only do owners have to pay a fee to participate in Restaurant Week (typically $500) and offer meal discounts, but ever since RAMW started steering people to OpenTable to book reservations, restaurateurs must pay a $1 fee for each person who goes through the online service. The money adds up quickly, biting into whatever profit may be available during the week. Bob Kinkead, the Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Kinkead’s in Foggy Bottom, says his payments to OpenTable will usually double or triple to nearly $3,000 a month during the promotion, which often runs longer than a week.
Kinkead, like other restaurateurs I spoke with, has mixed feelings about RAMW. He’s a past board member who understands what RAMW does well and what it doesn’t. He believes the association does a good job of preventing governments from raiding the pocketbooks of local restaurateurs when budgets fall short. At the same time, Kinkead thinks RAMW didn’t fight hard enough to stop the city from raising parking meter fees and extending their hours into the evening, thereby hammering downtown eateries.
The interesting thing about Kinkead is that he’s no sideline critic. In the late 1990s, he and some fellow restaurateurs created the Council of Independent Restaurants of America, a nationwide organization designed to battle the major chains. At one point, CIRA had chapters in 17 cities, including the District, where its membership peaked at about 50 establishments.
CIRA’s ambitions were similar to those of Don Rockwell and his budding association. CIRA tried to establish health care coverage for the employees of its 100-plus restaurant members (it proved almost impossible to find a policy to cover workers in the various states, Kinkead says); it tried to create a central ordering system for restaurants so members could take advantage of group purchasing rates (some cities already had companies performing this function, Kinkead says; chefs in other cities sometimes couldn’t agree on what ingredients to purchase); and it even tried its hand at expediting to help owners negotiate the Byzantine bureaucracy necessary to get restaurants open (lawyers already have this market well covered).
In the end, Kinkead says, the local chapter of CIRA was undone by the kind of things that bring down most such organizations: a lack of funds and a chronic inability to reach consensus. CIRA remains alive in other areas, Kinkead says, mostly smaller towns where members are willing to put aside their own needs for the greater good of the chapter. The veteran restaurateur believes one factor will determine whether Rockwell succeeds with AIR: “If he’s extremely well funded, there’s not a reason why it shouldn’t work,” Kinkead says. “If not, don’t bother, buddy.”
But another industry insider expresses a separate worry about Rockwell’s budding venture: Should AIR get traction, assemble a healthy number of dues-paying members, and start offering insurance and group purchasing, it could step on the toes of some powerful interests. The hotel and restaurant workers union, not to mention the companies that already offer group buying, would not sit idly and watch AIR take over their markets. “In the beginning,” says the source, “I don’t think anybody’s going to pay very much attention because [AIR] is so small.” But should AIR grow, Rockwell needs to be prepared for battle.
At the same time, the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington will not be standing still, either. The group no doubt has heard about the situation in New York City, where a number of high-profile restaurateurs including Stephen Hanson and Keith McNally recently started the NYC Hospitality Coalition to serve as a complement to the local chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association. The question here, of course, is this: How long will it take before this “complementary” organization becomes an actual competitor, fighting for the limited number of dues-paying members and donors.
Lynne Breaux, a former restaurateur herself, is the president of the non-profit RAMW. As the leader of the association with more than 650 members in the District and Northern Virginia, Breaux oversees an organization that took in $1.26 million during fiscal 2009. Far from being a group that cares only for owners and management, Breaux says, RAMW also looks out for workers. The association has a lawyer available for members to help them secure work visas for employees. Earlier in its history, Breaux notes, RAMW also offered group health insurance for restaurant workers and is looking into the proposition again. “It’s down the road,” she says. (A RAMW board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the association had a “substantial conversation” last week about a group health plan for workers.)
But Breaux is clearly aware that RAMW has its detractors, whether Landrum and his belief that RAMW lives to enrich itself (Breaux, incidentally, earned about $161,000 last year as president) or restaurateurs who are frustrated by the economics of Restaurant Week (Breaux says the group is talking to OpenTable about lowering its rates). “Maybe you can’t please everybody all the time,” she says.
That may be a lesson Don Rockwell will learn when the Association of Independent Restaurants finally gets off the ground. Or will it get off the ground? Or will local restaurateurs and their employees be forced to live with the imperfect work of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington? Michael Landrum has an opinion on this.
“I think there’s nothing that Don can’t accomplish once he sets his mind to it,” Landrum says.
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery