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Food Touches Everything

At the Citizen’s Restaurants and Social Impact event, four acclaimed chefs talked about feeding their customers well, while doing good for their communities

Can restaurants be successful businesses providing the food that people want to eat—and still be social-minded enterprises that make their communities better?

That was the overarching question of last night’s Citizen Speaks: Restaurants and Social Impact, featuring three Philly chefs—Marc Vetri, Jose Garces and Valerie Erwin—and New York’s Matthew Weingarten. Moderated by acclaimed national food writer Jane Black, the consensus among the chefs was overwhelming: Not only can they be socially conscious restaurateurs, they have to be.

“We’re trying to build community through food,” said Weingarten, culinary director of fast casual eatery chain Dig Inn, in New York and Boston. He’s now considering sites in Philadelphia. “We have tried to strip away a lot of the things we don’t need. We can spend the money here, or we can spend the money there. We’ve chosen to try and spend as much money as possible on our vegetables, and our people, because that’s the kind of business we’re in.”

The event, at the Free Library’s main branch, was part of the Citizen’s event series that seeks to address the pressing issues of the day, by bringing together experts and residents to focus on what works, how to solve problems and make Philadelphia better.

It also served as the launching point for a new Citizen project (along with the Food Trust, Restaurant Opportunity Center and The Free Library) tentatively titled the Eat Well, Do Good Civic Impact Guide, an interactive resource for enjoying our city’s multitude of restaurants—while still following your conscience. We are accepting ideas for restaurants that do good while feeding well, and also for ideas on ways to gauge civic impact.

“Do something. Be curious. Think and buy locally. Spend some time thinking about where you want Philadelphia and our society to go, so you can take action. And…”—a recurring joke of the night—“eat at Garces restaurants.”

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s conversation touched on several different issues of city life, a sign of just how central restaurants are to our urban landscape:

On immigration, Garces spoke movingly of a former employee who died from cancer because he didn’t go to a doctor in time for fear of being deported. Now, his Garces Foundation brings education and health amenities to immigrants, particularly those who work in restaurants. “That is the majority of the workforce,” said Garces, Philly’s Iron Chef. “They exist, they’re here, and they do a lot of jobs that most Americans would not do.”

On fair wages, the chefs all acknowledged the new reality of their business: Higher salaries means lower profit margins or higher-priced food—something the public isn’t yet ready for. But paying employees a livable wage—not just the state-mandated $2.83 “tip-minimum” per hour—is the right thing to do. For Vetri, who opened his eponymous James Beard award-winning eatery in 1998, that was a no-brainer; his workers have had health benefits since 2000, as well. “I don’t have to have someone there letting me know,  you have to give health insurance, you have to give this $15 minimum wage,” Vetri said. “I just think that we should all act responsibly.”

Erwin stressed the need for a new mandated minimum salary for food workers, one that does away with the $2.83 tip wage. “That is the tide that would raise all boats,” said Erwin, whose EAT Cafe offers pay-as-you-wish meals. “If everyone made a living wage, that’s the real trickle-down economics.”

On sustainability, Weingarten and Garces both noted a need to cut down on restaurant waste—though they pointed out a surprising fact: While restaurants are known to throw out a lot of food every day, it’s at farms where even more waste occurs. Garces recounted visiting nearby farms where he sources his food and finding piles of discarded bruised tomatoes and squash—ugly, but usable.

Weingarten, who works with farmers from seed to crop so there is no middleman, said he uses as many parts of the vegetables as he can—offering, for example, broccoli florets, stems and leaves—to ensure as little is left behind as possible. And, he says, they drop off any leftover food to area shelters every day. “The less you waste, the more money you have,” he noted.

“We’re trying to build community through food,” said Weingarten, culinary director of fast casual eatery chain Dig Inn, in New York and Boston. He’s now considering sites in Philadelphia.

On education, Vetri spoke about his school lunch program, which swaps out food that is “not the way anyone should be eating” with fresh, vegetable-heavy dishes served family-style at nine area schools. The program recently served its one millionth meal. “We can serve it in this really nice family style, where you can actually walk into the lunchroom, you can go sit at some round tables,” Vetri said. “The chef walks out, they announce what they’re eating for lunch. And then everyone eats. And they interact with each other.”

On poverty, Erwin pointed out a little considered fact: Poor people rarely have the luxury of a sit-down meal at a restaurant. That’s why EAT Cafe, a West Philly restaurant opened in partnership with Drexel University and the Vetri Foundation, allows anyone to pay anything for their meal. About a third of customers pay nothing; a third pay the recommended value of the meal; and the rest pay for their meal and add a donation.

“You know how sometimes you had such a bad day, and all you want to do is go out and have somebody else make the food and somebody else bring it to you, so you can relax for an hour?” Erwin said. “We bring that to everybody.”

The discussion ended—as all Citizen events do—with calls to action, summarized by Black after each chef weighed in: “Do something. Be curious. Think and buy locally. Spend some time thinking about where you want Philadelphia and our society to go, so you can take action. And…”—a recurring joke of the night—“eat at Garces restaurants.”

The event, in partnership with The Free Library, WURD and Jeff Brown’s ShopRite, was sponsored by ComcastNBCUniversal, FS Investments, DilworthPaxson, LLC, and Campus Apartments.

Header photo: Marc Vetri, Matt Weingarten, Jose Garces and Valerie Erwin, at Citizen Speaks. Photo: Cooks Who Care

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