Pepper In Some Lunch

Mayor Turner's Visit to Chili's Brings Local Backlash

Small business operators in Houston question a weekend tweet.

By Timothy Malcolm April 20, 2020

Sir, this is a Chili's.

Few industries have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than the restaurant industry. The National Restaurant Association, a business association representing nearly 400,000 eateries, claims more than 200,000 industry jobs have been lost in Texas in the wake of the coronavirus event. 

In Houston, where going out to eat is more a way of life than a pastime, restaurants have had to close their dining rooms, and many have pivoted to a business model that includes take-out and/or delivery. But with a massive reduction in profits, restaurants have had to scale back everything, including payroll costs. Many of the 300,000-plus restaurant workers, including cooks, servers, and front- and back-of-house staff members, have either been furloughed, seen a reduction in pay and/or time, or laid off completely.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged this since the beginning of the pandemic. After ordering to close restaurant dining rooms in the interest of public safety, on March 17 he wrote a letter asking both U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to enable Texas to declare an Economic Injury Disaster, and to give cash benefits to those who had lost their jobs. 

Then, last Thursday, Mayor Sylvester Turner launched the Take Us To Your Table campaign in partnership with the Houston and Texas Restaurant Associations. The campaign encourages Houstonians to order take-out or delivery from a favorite local restaurant, then post a photo of their meal back at home with the hashtag #TakeUsToYourTable.

"I want to encourage the public to support local restaurants through delivery and curbside takeout," said Turner in a press release when unveiling the campaign. "It's important to support the restaurants that make Houston so special. If we work together, we will get through this challenging time together.”

Two days after unveiling this campaign, designed to advance support of local restaurants, Turner tweeted about visiting a restaurant. That restaurant was a Chili's.

Chili's, as we all know, is a casual dining chain that sells fajitas, pork ribs, and other Tex-Mex adjacent items owned by Brinker International; franchisees operate locations. Its worldwide brand (more than 1,600 locations, per Brinker), employs more than 10,000 workers, and is not based in Houston (it's based in Dallas). It wouldn't be considered a local restaurant, and so there was immediate backlash.

Feges, of course, is the owner of Feges BBQ. He had to temporarily close his stand at Greenway Plaza recently and is now hosting pop-ups at a future second location of his smokehouse in Spring Branch.

When reached for comment, Turner's communications director Mary Benton wrote in a email that the mayor and his team's Chili's lunch Saturday was "a quick, convenient stop" between visits to the Houston Food Bank and the Delmar Stadium COVID-19 testing site, where he had planned to hold his daily media briefing. She added that staff members who schedule advance and quick-grab meals for Turner regularly choose local and independent operators.

"Usually, they focus only on what is convenient and will allow them to keep the mayor on time and on the route," wrote Benton. 

Moreover, she wrote that while Chili's isn't a local and independent entity, it hires Houstonians. "Look at the photo that was posted to Twitter," she said. "Those local folks were undoubtedly happy to see the mayor grabbing a quick meal."

But, she added, Turner himself didn't write or hit send on the tweet about Chili's. Still, she acknowledged that our asking for a comment was a reminder to "members of his staff that we should think twice about how we phrase some of our social media posts."

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