Houston Food and Drink Community Pens Open Letter For Help

The message to Mayor Turner asks for rent relief, negotiation of delayed sales, tax payments, and more.

By Timothy Malcolm March 18, 2020

The Houston food and drink industry has pivoted to take-out, delivery, and drive-thru-only operations.

Houston's culinary community needs help, and it wants city leadership to know it.

Abbie Byrom, who works at Truth BBQ on Washington Avenue, has penned an open letter asking Mayor Sylvester Turner and local officials to act now to help ease the burden caused by measures to slow the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19.

On Monday, Turner announced that for 15 days starting Tuesday, all Houston bars had to shut down, while restaurants could only operate as pick-up, delivery, and drive-thru establishments. While the order runs in concert with national directives to stay away from other people during the spread of COVID-19, it also compromises the culinary community's ability to make money to pay rent, taxes (mixed beverage gross receipt taxes and sales taxes are due to the state by Friday), and staff, and also to purchase goods necessary to keep kitchens running.

"Houston has the most amount of dine-out per week, per person in America," Byrom said Wednesday. "We're 10,000 restaurants-strong here. Imagine the impact we have on the economy."

Byrom helped Truth BBQ on Tuesday navigate the first day of work without dine-in patrons. After finishing the shift, she wondered if anyone in the food and beverage industry was mobilizing and addressing local politicians.

"It feels like The Hunger Games right now," Byrom said. "Nobody's gonna help us if we don't help ourselves."

She wrote the letter Tuesday evening and sent a draft to a close circle of owners and operators, including chef Bobby Matos (State of Grace, La Lucha, Superica) and Rebecca Masson (Fluff Bake Bar). Since, hundreds of hospitality workers from across the local restaurant and bar scene have signed the letter. You can read the letter here, and if you're in the industry, you can sign it.

Per the letter, the culinary community is asking Mayor Turner to help in these ways:

  • Negotiating delayed or deferred sales tax payments on the state level
  • Mandate for landlords to charge rent at cost, a 30 day relief, or renegotiate leases to scale back to market rate in 90 days
  • Offer paid sick leave for their employees 
  • Use emergency funds to allow restaurants to file ‘interruption of business’ claims to cover 30 days of labor or rent costs; something insurance companies are denying during this crisis
  • Allow restaurant owners, who cannot file for unemployment at this time, to file for economic assistance due to furlough, closure, or loss of business greater than 50%

Byrom doesn't know if the letter will prove effective, but she thinks it's a necessary first step in uniting the culinary community in a time of crisis that could spell doom for the industry.

"My hope is that people will get educated. Read Matthew Jennings's piece in Food & Wine. Check out Instagrams like Bobby Heugel, who's talking about all this. Pay attention to how other large cities are handling similar issues," Byrom said. "We just need the voice to back us. 'Mayor Turner, you can do this. You can help us with the sales tax. You can put a moratorium on landlords collecting rent. There are things that you can do."

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