Boston Mayoral candidate and current City Councilor Andrea Campbell wants to eliminate the inequities that exist in the city’s restaurant industry while simultaneously helping it bounce back from the pandemic, and her restaurant recovery plan aims to do both things.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for restaurants in Boston, and it has also exposed the inequities that exist in the industry, though it didn’t necessarily cause them: Boston is a deeply segregated city with a long history of housing discrimination, gentrification, and dispossession. The inequities that have been laid bare in the past 13 months are simply a sharper, more in-focus reflection of the city that Boston has always been.
Campbell, who has served on the Boston City Council since 2016, and was the first Black woman to serve as its president when she did so from 2018-2020, grew up in Roxbury and the South End. Her mother died when she was just eight months old, and her father was incarcerated for the first eight years of her life, so she and her twin brother Andre grew up between the homes of relatives and in foster care, sometimes in public housing and on food assistance. Campbell understands how inequitable Boston can be because she’s lived it firsthand.
For her restaurant recovery plan, Campbell consulted with a number of people involved in the industry, including Fresh Food Generation’s Cassandria Campbell and Select Oyster Bar’s Michael Serpa, among others. Campbell’s plan seeks to reform the liquor licensing process; cap third-party delivery fees at 15 percent on a permanent basis; help restaurants fight food insecurity; create a direct line from restaurant operators and workers to City Hall by establishing a hospitality division, and convening a hospitality advisory council; expanding the city’s outdoor dining program and pedestrianizing more main streets districts across the city, with the ultimate goal of connecting the city’s neighborhoods and changing the infrastructure to lead to a less segregated Boston; and much more.
Eater caught up with Campbell last week to discuss the finer details of her plan. That conversation, which appears below, has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Terrence Doyle: Obviously, all you have to do is look around to see the devastation the pandemic has caused in the restaurant industry. What led to the creation of your plan?
Andrea Campbell: I’ve been in contact and conversation with restaurant owners — including people of color and women who own restaurants — that are either not going to reopen, or that are still struggling right now. I’ve also engaged a whole host of our most notable chefs and restaurant owners, who own several restaurants, and who are talking about how their industry isn’t doing well right now because of the pandemic, and about how difficult it will be for them to recover if no one prioritizes this industry and comes up with a plan to solve for the issues in the short term and long term.
And so out of these conversations, over several months, we developed this plan in partnership with many of those industry leaders — large scale owners, independent owners, food truck owners — and we’re really proud of what we’ve come up with. I think it’s practical, and presents a plan that will help this industry in the short term, but also accelerate what I think will be rapid recovery for the industry as a whole as soon as this pandemic is over.
TD: Your plan explicitly calls out the need for greater equity in the Boston restaurant industry. How will your plan specifically focus on the city’s underserved neighborhoods, like Mattapan?
AC: [We have to] look at the inequities that still exist in the industry. And what I’m excited about is that you have folks in this industry currently who recognize those inequities, and who want to play a meaningful role in partnership with their city to close those gaps, and to create more opportunity for folks who want to open up restaurants in our city, including our students and our young people. We also need to find a way to support existing entrepreneurs who want to either expand or grow their restaurants.
There are ways in which the City of Boston can support all of these efforts by providing immediate relief now, based on resources we’re getting from the state and the federal government. And there are ways in which we can use our own city’s budget to also provide opportunities and resources and capital to this industry. [Another approach is] to pull on the private sector to support us in helping this industry in the short term, but also in the long term.
Boston is in a unique position to be that convener, and we just have to prioritize this, right? The restaurant industry is the nation’s second largest private employer. It’s proven that it provides low barrier employment opportunities for folks, which is going to be critically important coming out of COVID. There will be a lot of low wage workers who are unemployed. And it also is an industry that drives economic opportunity in our neighborhoods through small businesses, but also connectivity.
So as we talk about the larger issues of racial injustice, how segregated we are as a city, this industry also has an opportunity to close those gaps in so many different ways, if prioritized. My putting this plan out is an opportunity for me to say to the powers that be that I not only intend on prioritizing this industry as the next elected mayor of the City of Boston, but that it is essential that we do the work now and in the long term.
TD: Do you think engaging the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which is affiliated with the National Restaurant Association — a vocal opponent of the push for a $15 minimum wage — could undermine your equity efforts?
AC: I don’t think so. For me, I have always been about engaging as many stakeholders as possible — anyone who touches this industry. So whether it’s talking about liquor license reform, how we as a city set up structures to make it easier for folks to be able to open a restaurant, like having a hospitality division, or having an advisory council [to help people navigate the bureaucracy] — I think it’s critically important to have every voice at the table.
At the end of the day, we don’t all have to agree. And one thing I firmly believe is that folks in Boston deserve a living wage. And it is essential that we make sure that folks in Boston have a living wage, because it is so expensive to live here. And so as we talk about addressing economic recovery, addressing the housing crisis, we have to couple that conversation with ensuring that our folks have decent wages, and that they have the opportunity to grow those wages over time.
It is extremely painful, as I talk to folks who’ve lost the jobs that they’ve been working for 10 to 15 years, to hear that they were making the same amount of money [now as they did then]. That is absurd. When you think about someone who works hard in Boston, they should be rewarded for that. I firmly stand for that. But I do think there’s still a way to engage everyone when talking about how critically important it is to have this industry rebound quickly.
TD: In terms of liquor license reform, I know one of the ideas that’s been floated is introducing non-transferable licenses that operators could essentially rent by paying a yearly fee. This approach would lower the barrier to entry for operators that don’t have a ton of cash up front, and wouldn’t devalue existing licenses that some operators bought for as much as $500,000. The main issue with this approach, I think, is that it doesn’t allow new operators to build equity on a license, which creates a tiered system. How can the city reform the liquor licensing process to be more equitable, while adding more liquor licenses to historically underserved neighborhoods?
AC: So that is one of the goals — to make sure that we’re getting more liquor licenses in underserved neighborhoods. And the fact that my home neighborhood of Mattapan does not have a single liquor serving restaurant is absolutely ridiculous. And we’ve been talking about this in the city for years. And so it’s twofold, right? On the one hand, it’s making sure that we are supporting either existing restaurant owners who might be able to scale up in Mattapan or Dorchester and grow, and that we’re making sure that they have access to capital and technical assistance, to be able to scale.
But reforming the liquor licensing process is critically important, because it’s probably the greatest barrier to ensuring equity in the restaurant industry. There’s been attempts, and different solutions have been put forward. But I think that now is the time, as we are thinking about how we reimagine this industry, and we must do it in partnership with the owners themselves and others in the industry, including workers. And as we convene folks, from the outset, we must name what the issue is — naming that fact about Mattapan, naming the barrier to equity because of the current liquor licensing process. And then engaging all of these stakeholders in developing creative ideas and solutions, including possibly from other municipalities, on ways to create an equitable license fee structure to create a more level playing field.
Editor’s Note: According to data acquired by Eater from the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, 31 percent of liquor licenses issued in Boston from the beginning of 2010 to November 2019 went to just four neighborhoods (Back Bay, North End, Seaport, and South Boston) that make up fewer than 10 percent of the city’s total population. The combined population of those four neighborhoods is overwhelmingly white (78 percent) and overwhelmingly wealthy (the average of the median household incomes for the four neighborhoods is $110,735). By contrast, white people make up roughly 45 percent of the city’s total population, and the median household income in all of Boston is just $71,115.
On the other hand, historically Black neighborhoods like Roxbury and Mattapan have been mostly left out of the liquor licensing process. Roxbury accounts for eight percent of the city’s total population, but received fewer than three percent of the liquor licenses issued over the same period mentioned above, while Mattapan doesn’t have a single restaurant with a liquor license.
TD: Can you explain how your plan will create a more connected Boston?
AC: These are some things that are already happening … and we can of course make some of this permanent. [Especially] with this idea of connecting neighborhoods that are often disconnected through these outdoor activities, and through closing streets so they’re pedestrian friendly — and restaurants are going to play a critical role.
I’ll just share one quick story. When I was developing the plan, I had a conversation with a whole host of restaurant owners. And Cassandria, who runs Fresh Food Generation, was talking about how she lives in Roxbury, and it is 15 minutes from Back Bay — and yet those two communities can feel worlds apart. But she was excited talking with other restaurant owners and lovers of food who were [involved with developing the plan] about how their industry is really primed to connect communities that continue to feel disconnected through some of these planning exercises with the city, and making permanent some of the outdoor activities that we’ve already done. That’s exciting.
TD: It’s been such a difficult year for the restaurant industry, and we’ve seen some of our favorite restaurants close, and we’re going to see more close. Where do you see the Boston restaurant industry in the next year or five years? Are you hopeful?
AC: I am beyond hopeful, even in these dark times for this industry. The owners and the workers I have engaged with who love the work they do and who see the power in the restaurant industry are not only continuing to create spaces where we can go and have a good time and spend time with our loved ones and get to know our neighbors, but they’re also using this industry as a vehicle to deal with things like food insecurity, using this industry as a way in which to create opportunity for low wage workers that will need jobs coming out of the pandemic, and using this industry to create a more inclusive city. All of this is on the table because folks in this industry are currently reimagining what is possible — what they want is a partner in City Hall, a partner in the City of Boston.
Update, March 30, 4:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this post stated that the Massachusetts Restaurant Association is a chapter of the National Restaurant Association. While the MRA is affiliated with and collaborates with the NRA, it is its own separate entity. A spokesperson with the MRA told Eater it recognizes increases in the minimum wage must occur, though it advocates for a lower and slower increase.