May 19, 2020

Food Fight Series: Chef Danielle Leoni

Food Fight Series: Chef Danielle Leoni

LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE! I can think of few times in my life I've walked away from a conversation so fired up! 

Today, we had the opportunity to chat with Chef Danielle Leoni, chef/owner of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, who's fighting for sustainability in both the food we eat and the industry at large. Chef Leoni has been a food fighter from the beginning. Her positions on responsible sourcing and a holistic approach to hospitality have garnered her attention from prominent organizations like the James Beard Foundation, but it's the pandemic has brought her message to the masses. 

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SHOW NOTES

  • Beginning in campaigning for the hospitality industry during Covid
  • Breadfruit and Rum Bar closed due to safety
  • Decided takeout model wasn’t suitable
  • Sent a letter to Governor with suggestions to help independent hospitality businesses
  • Over 1000 business owners signed the letter
  • Ideas put to the Governor
  • Stop all penalties for sales tax payments
  • 24month payment plan for sales tax
  • Waive fees for liquor licenses - this was accepted
  • Moratorium on commercial evictions - this was accepted
  • Clear guidelines for reopening of hospitality businesses
  • No intentions of reopening soon
  • Covid has given us a lifetime opportunity
  • We shape our food system
  • Hospitality workers are not respected
  • Seen as having “jobs” and not careers
  • The “paid help”
  • Hospitality shouldn’t be valued any less than other industries
  • The cost of reopening
  • What is the cost of giving team member fair wages?
  • Raising prices
  • The restaurant has no value is customers won’t compensate
  • You can’t retire on a James Beard award
  • Profits are minimal
  • Most restaurants are treading water
  • Initiatives for change
  • Seafood sustainability
  • Equity for women
  • Health of the oceans
  • Getting funding for the disadvantaged
  • Everyone thinks it is really easy to be in the restaurant business
  • It is not our sole responsibility to fix the food system
  • Speak up for inequalities
  • Pick up the phone to politicians
  • Now is the best time to ask for systemic change
  • Goal for the future
  • To be seen as professionals and be paid equally and fairly
  • Advice for restaurateurs
  • Put thoughts and beliefs on paper
  • Allow patrons and other business owners to support
  • Find a representative and demand change
Transcript

Josh Kopel:
Today's episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They're also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now, here we go.

Danielle Leoni:
As a chef, I don't believe you're worth your weight in salt if you're not speaking up for these inequalities, because if you are a chef, that means you are a steward of the people around you, that means people in your restaurant and every soul that walks in or may walk in. That is a lot of responsibility, but that's who you are if you're going to call yourself chef, end of the day.

Josh Kopel:
Welcome to FULL COMP, a show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders and innovators, served up on the house. On today's show we chat with Chef Danielle Leoni, chef-owner of the Breadfruit and Rum Bar, who's fighting for sustainability in both the food we eat and the industry at large. Danielle Leoni has been a food fighter from the beginning. Her positions on sustainability and a holistic approach to hospitality have garnered her attention from prominent organizations like the James Beard Foundation, but it's the pandemic that's brought her message to the masses. We begin by discussing this new larger platform and how she's utilizing it to spread the good word. Did you get this much attention prior to the pandemic?

Danielle Leoni:
It wasn't as easy to get this much attention. Honestly, Josh, I've been remarkably fortunate to always get a lot of press. Every newspaper, every magazine, every radio station, I feel like they're always interested in my sustainability initiatives and the stuff that I do. So I don't know if nobody else is doing anything in Arizona or if I'm actually doing things that are remarkable, but it has been easier than ever. I feel like I would never answer my phone if I didn't have your phone number locked in. Now I just pick up my phone. I'm like, "It's just probably a reporter." Yeah.

Josh Kopel:
Oh my goodness. Well, talk to me about those ideas and talk to me about those initiatives.

Danielle Leoni:
March 19th I shut down the Breadfruit and Rum Bar. It is my restaurant in downtown Phoenix and May was going to be our 12th year. So we're nearly 12 years old and we shut it down because we didn't feel like it was safe. There is a pandemic, right? And we're kind of a fine dining place so take-out really isn't our jam. I penned a letter to our governor in Arizona here, Governor Doug Ducey, and I just wrote down a few things that I thought he could do, a few things that he should take into consideration to help restaurants in particular. Not that he is inept. He is our governor. I'm sure he gets along pretty well. I felt as though, and I certainly don't want to be the governor, but as a constituent and I would say a citizen of my planet, I think it's my responsibility to speak up when I see a gap, when I see a failure in the system.

Danielle Leoni:
It is a community and if we are a democracy, everybody should have a voice. If we all pitch in and we speak from a place of concern and consideration for our communities, then it should be heard. That's exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure that Governor Ducey heard a point of view that he wasn't hearing. So sent that over to him and shared it with some of my friends and within 48 hours I had over 1,000 businesses pen their name to my letter, my open letter to Governor Ducey, and that is where it just started snowballing.

Josh Kopel:
Can you take me through some of the bigger points in the letter?

Danielle Leoni:
Yeah, absolutely. So what we were thinking about is if our doors were shut, what are some things that would prevent us from ever opening our doors again? Well, we really got our businesses ripped out from under us in the middle of March and we were caught off guard and we were struggling. We all know that restaurants per capita don't have a lot of money in their bank account for savings. A lot of us did what we thought was right, and that meant paying our team, our staff, our family, right? That money for a lot of us got pulled from our sales tax money. So knowing full well that I collected this money and it wasn't mine, I felt like in this state of emergency and disaster, that these people deserve to have it because we were just kind of caught off guard with how money was coming in.

Danielle Leoni:
So I asked Governor Ducey to stop all penalties, all fines being assessed on that money, letting us go ahead and submit so the state understands how much money they're owed, but don't penalize us for not paying it and also give us a 24 month payment plan. I asked him to do that for the upcoming months. There are some people operating and I think if you want to open your business, then you should be able to manage it, but at the same time, we're all just trying to stay afloat. So I didn't ask him for anything for free. I just asked him just to give us a little forgiveness and stop punishing us for trying to do business or trying to open our doors. I also asked him to waive the fees for liquor licenses and waive any penalties. And we did get that. So you can register for your liquor license and you don't have to pay right now.

Danielle Leoni:
The cool thing about that is he's also letting restaurants and bars, whoever have a liquor license of any kind, we can sell. So you can take it off-premise now. We can deliver it to you. And if you didn't have the money, for me as a restaurant owner, liquor sales is a significant part of keeping my doors open. So the TPT, the taxes, the liquor license. We can sell liquor. Also a moratorium on commercial evictions. I thought that was really cool. Having a home, you talk about homelessness, but it doesn't matter how great a chef you are or a restaurateur if you don't have a home.

Josh Kopel:
Right.

Danielle Leoni:
Yeah. So we succeeded in that as well. He put a moratorium on commercial evictions. That was huge. So now we all have a home. We're able to sell our booze. I'm still working on the taxes. And now I am championing him to give us more clear guidelines on reopening because right now in Arizona, consumer confidence is really low. We're actually the lowest ranking state in the nation for testing. There is no state that has conducted less tests than the state of Arizona. Governor Ducey has declared this a success. We've flattened the curve and we know we're going to open those stores and nobody knows how to manage this virus properly and it's just going to flare up. We've suffered enough in restaurants, just trying to figure out how to manage these past couple of months, but we can't afford to just have it ripped out from under us again.

Josh Kopel:
Do you intend to open soon?

Danielle Leoni:
I have no intentions of opening soon at all. I don't even have a date. I don't have enough information to make a judgment call like that. And for me, I understand that we live in a world and it's dominated by money. It's capitalism. I have just never been raised like that. It's not that I have a lot of money or a huge safety net. I'm just like most chefs, I cook for the love of it and then there's some money, but I can't imagine asking anybody I care about to walk into a restaurant and serve other people. I'm not willing to do it personally, and I've always told my team if I wouldn't do it or haven't done it, then I would never ask them to do it.

Josh Kopel:
So in this moment, as we brace for the reopening of everyone else's restaurant, you've been able to start a conversation about sustainability. It reminds me of, I know that in Milan right now, since everybody's trapped at home, they are widening the sidewalks. They are putting in bike lanes. All of the things that they intended to by 2030, they're doing today because we have an opportunity to start fresh. I feel the same way about sustainability, don't you?

Danielle Leoni:
Because every paradigm has effectively been shattered, this is our one lifetime opportunity. We can reshaped the game as chefs, as restaurateurs. If you haven't realized this before, we have always been in charge. I think we just had our heads to focus in our plates, pushing out and managing our teams to realize the true power we have. Over the years I've heard it many times and I've said it many times, that we shape our food system. You've got to buy properly so people eat properly and it's this beautiful circle and symbiotic relationship of health and wellness. But then we still struggle with low profit merges and so many insecurities, like the lack of health insurance or maternity leave or paternity leave, or the benefits you get when you have a real job. I think that we are all in this predicament today because our government, whether it's local state or federal, they don't see us as having professions.

Danielle Leoni:
We just have jobs. We're still the paid help. To be considered help these days is incredible when we are actually the people that now you hear our elected officials calling us the backbone. All of a sudden we went from help to backbone. When you have that kind of position and that foothold, when you're recognized for that, that is the time to seize it. That's something else we're considering too, when we reopened, it's not just about testing and staying safe. It's about the purpose behind reopening, and that purpose has to be more than a chef feeling good about being back in the kitchen so they can maybe win an award or whatever they're doing or our self-serving kind of weird little fetishes we have the chefs and restaurateurs, but really thinking about who are we serving and when will it be time to serve ourselves?

Josh Kopel:
I think about the same thing myself. I look at the lease that we're burdened with at our restaurant. I look at the fundamentals of the business at large and how difficult it's been to operate for all of these years. You said something that really resonated, which was I signed that lease. I negotiated those terrible deals that I willfully went into and it was fine because I would work hard enough to work through it. And I did. I worked through epic losses to break even, break even to small profits, small profits to small profits because profits never really grew. It's just we won awards and we got all of this attention and these accolades, which kind of offset the fact that we were treading water, you know? But at what point do I get health care, right? At what point do I get a 401k? At what point do these people that are working 80 to 100 hours a week, at what point do they get the same professional benefits they do in every other industry?

Danielle Leoni:
Our industry shouldn't be valued any less. It doesn't make sense. We are the ones that cook for you, that provide spaces for you to celebrate, to convene. We all know how it's been being stuck at home for over a month and how much our lives are lacking, how much more work we all have done. Can you believe how many dishes you've washed lately? Oh my God. I can't believe this madness, taking out my trash like I have. This is nuts. So I even have a renewed perspective on what this industry provides and when I'm reassessing the cost of opening again, it's not just about the inventory and the rent I owe. We have our numbers in front of us and my partner, Dwayne Allen, we're going through and we're instead of starting at what does it take to reopen, we're going to the other extreme. We're saying, what is the cost of healthcare, insurance, paid vacation, maternity, paternity leave?

Danielle Leoni:
What is the cost of giving everybody a fair wage and not a living wage as defined by the government, but what we understand what it takes to live and to be able to have a life and a family and not to struggle? What's that number? Now we go back and we work down from there and say, well, this is the cost of the plate now. If we can't ask our customers to pay the cost of this plate, then the restaurant has no value. What purpose does it serve? It's not serving my team. It's not serving me. It's exhausting. It's physically and mentally demanding, has very little compensation, and you cannot retire on a James Beard Award. No. Right?

Danielle Leoni:
So we need to figure out how to get paid for our work and that is something that I've just started to seriously consider. I know that it can't necessarily be put all on my plate to figure out. It really has to be a partnership between banks and governments and every frame of government from local to state and federal. You think about all the different sectors involved in feeding the nation, and I don't believe in cheap food in so much as food that doesn't have nutritional value. I think everybody should have access to food that they could afford, but it needs to be nutritious food too. It has to feed our planet as much as it feeds the person. So none of this could happen with chefs or restaurant owners.

Danielle Leoni:
That's why we pair up with other organizations. That's why I pair up with the James Beard Foundation to talk about seafood sustainability or equity for women or whatever cause that we know that there is a disparity, or the Monterey Bay Aquarium when we talk about the health of our oceans, because I can't change the health of the oceans by myself. I also can't change the restaurant industry by myself and I can't do this even with 100 restaurants. I need to figure out how all these systems connect and how they need to support each other. That's what I'm looking into. How do we get lending at a fair rate for people that are disadvantaged? So economically disadvantaged, right? Not just being a minority. So let's not look at your gender or your color or where you come from, but just the fact that maybe you're economically disadvantaged, but you have the ability and the dream.

Danielle Leoni:
How do I get those people funding, right? Thinking about that. Cause those are the people that should be able to have a voice as much as I do or you do, or the most renowned chef. Everybody starts from somewhere. But we, a lot of us don't have that leg up. Then thinking about even the health insurance subsidies for that. So all I know right now is that there is an issue and we have the ear of our communities and our government. It's time to sort it out. I need to not consider how much more money I need to reopen, but what is the true cost to our community and our workforce and figure out how to fund that.

Josh Kopel:
Well, and let's unpack that because I think there are two big conversations that need to be had and I want your take on it. The two conversations that at least in my lifetime, and I've spent my entire life in this industry, the two conversations that haven't taken place are that industry professionals within the industry openly talk about the issues that we need to tackle. My experience is that everyone's doing really well until the moment they go out of business. Right? Then the other side of that coin is obviously everyone thinks that it's really easy to be in the restaurant business from a patron's perspective, otherwise they wouldn't be so hypercritical. Otherwise, you wouldn't see lawyers and investment bankers and doctors opening their own restaurants, right?

Josh Kopel:
Because I'd never tried to open my own law firm or medical practice because I know I'm not qualified. So it seems like ... It's our fault. I see you laughing. It's our fault because we've never talked about it together and we've never talked about it with the patrons and said, "Hey, I'm not charging you what the food costs or what it's worth. I'm charging you what I think you'll pay. So if you understand these things, maybe you'd be willing to pay more."

Danielle Leoni:
And then they'll say, "Well, why are you charging me so much when I can go down to the road and eat at Chompies or Quiznos and it's $3 for, I don't know, the most enormous sandwich you've ever eaten in your life." Then it's now my job to explain to them the intricacies of food systems and the inequalities of food systems.

Josh Kopel:
But is it our job?

Danielle Leoni:
Yes.

Josh Kopel:
Should it be our responsibility? It should, right?

Danielle Leoni:
But not our sole responsibility. It is not my responsibility to fix the food system. It's my responsibility, just like I started that coalition, it is my responsibility to speak up. And I have been speaking up for years and I will continue to do that. What I've come to realize though is I am screaming from the mountain tops and people are handing me megaphones. I've got the support. I can't ask for more support. Like I said, I have the James Beard Foundation, Monterey Bay Aquarium. I have every newspaper and magazine in the State of Arizona that will amplify this message for me. I'm sure I've made people happy and I inspired some people along the way. Then you have to answer the question for yourself, is that good enough?

Danielle Leoni:
Then I can say thousands of grassroots efforts come together and one day it'll make this beautiful change and it'll pivot. That's a long time to wait. In the meantime, we suffer this reality. So yeah, as a chef I don't believe you're worth your weight in salt if you're not speaking up for these inequalities, because if you are a chef, that means you are a steward of the people around you. That means people in your restaurant and every soul that walks in or may walk in. That is a lot of responsibility, but that's who you are if you're going to call yourself chef end of the day. I know these things, but at the end of the day, I'm also just a chef and we need other people to step in.

Danielle Leoni:
It has to be systematic change and I think this is the time where we can start asking for it and making sure that we really take advantage of the fact that people are hearing us more. Like you were saying just now, that we should be having these conversations in our restaurants with our patrons. I think they're going to be more apt to listen now, and so if there wasn't an initiative, if we were trying to support somebody that was going to affect change on a policy level, whether it's statewide or federally, we would have more support. I do think the time is now for this. We are more interesting to people outside of our industry today than we ever have been.

Josh Kopel:
Walk me through your vision for the future, ideal scenario, right? We're still swimming in the sewer, but if we were to look up and gaze at the stars, what does it look like a week from now, a month from now, a year from now?

Danielle Leoni:
Ultimately there's just that one vision, and that's for me, as a person that represents our industry, for us to be treated fairly and equally, just to be seen as professionals and to be paid accordingly and to reap all the benefits you would if you invested your life in any career. If you're a bartender or a waiter or a cook or you work in my galley, it just shouldn't matter. You should be compensated fairly. So I think that I would rather sacrifice my restaurant. I would rather use it as a statement for how strongly I believe in change, and that means I'll either figure out how to reopen it in such a way that it's everything I just said it was supposed to be or I will sacrifice it for a statement. I will again use it as my last ditch effort to cry from the mountain tops that money is not the end all be all. We know that I don't earn it as a chef the way that we're supposed to, and I won't perpetuate it.

Josh Kopel:
Sammy and I have the same conversation, right? We say, "If we can't figure out a way to do this in a way that is sustainable, both in the traditional sense, you know how responsible we are with sourcing and all of that, but also from a human standpoint." Can we do this working a 50 hour work week? Can we do this with two days off in a row? Can I do this while still spending time rearing my daughter? These are all real questions. Do you have any advice for me or for any of the other restaurateurs listening as to how we can help push this agenda forward? What can people do day-to-day, you know?

Danielle Leoni:
I think just instead of thinking it or speaking it or knowing and being convicted, it needs to be real. The only way something becomes real, it has to be tangible. That's putting what you think and believe down on paper and disseminating it and making sure people see it, making sure that it's something that people can sign onto. I had such tremendous success with that letter to Governor Ducey at ASRC and it's because it was something that people can read and it starts conversation, and because so many people got behind that letter, put their names on it and it was very specific, this is what I want and this is how I know it could happen, I was heard. I didn't get everything I wanted, yes, but it was really cool to know that the entire state of Arizona, every small business in the entire state would not suffer an eviction because I wrote a letter.

Danielle Leoni:
That's crazy how many people benefited from that. In the past, I've taken my concerns and I've aligned with organizations and I've talked about it and I'm really more now than ever seen the value in lobbying, finding your representative and finding that person that can make the change and telling them this is the change that has to happen. This is who supports it and this is how we perhaps would like to see it done and start that conversation, because moving forward, these conditions have to change for us because if they don't, we will always be vulnerable and we're just going to keep suffering. At the end of the day, I would love to have two days off in a row like a regular person or to not work 80 hours a week and earn the same pay for 80 hours as somebody that might work 40 or 50.

Danielle Leoni:
I just think anybody that cares that aligns with this, that is feeling that in their own lives, you have to stand up for it. You can't just think it because nobody can hear you. Just keep saying it and keep repeating it. But you have to align with people that can affect change and those are people that have political power. That means supporting people that you would like to see in office, even if it's just city council. At any level, find the people that care in your community and make sure that they have a voice so when you have a concern, they can share their voice. But we have to be better organized and like I said, I think the forefront of this in our leadership has been the James Beard Foundation. They've been working hard, but they can only do so much unless we are going to do something about it.

Danielle Leoni:
You'll see all the time these letters, sign this letter, call your representative and then you get that glaze or you're like, "Yeah, that's a great idea." And then you just keep scrolling or clicking on other stuff. You didn't do anything by the way, you just wasted your time. You actually have to not be afraid to pick up a phone because that works. So if you're not happy with your life, if you agree with any of this, that there is inequity in our industry, you have to physically do something because no matter how much press I get or how much notoriety chefs get, it's not enough. We can't do it by ourselves. We only affect change when we do it together.

Josh Kopel:
That's Chef Danielle Leoni, chef-owner of the Breadfruit and Rum Bar. Be sure to follow the chef on all social channels using the handle Chef Danielle Leoni. If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content or read our weekly blog, go to joshkopel.com. That's J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L.com. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and while you're there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I'm Josh Kopel. You've been listening to FULL COMP.