How Austin Restaurants Are Leading the Trump Era Resistance
Economically culture-jamming the new administration
It's a beautiful January afternoon in Austin – maybe a bit warmer than usual – and people are waiting outside to eat lunch at Bouldin Creek Cafe. It's just another afternoon in South Austin. That is, until a man carrying a Donald Trump piñata walks up and the crowd bursts into spontaneous applause.
Later that evening, a line of patrons stretches out the door of the Aristocrat Lounge on Burnet Road. The bar is offering a list of perhaps pointedly named cocktails including the Suffering Bastard and the Wind Is a Very Deceiving Thing. There's not a place to sit, and the atmosphere is festive. "Drinking Helps," reads the menu, and, for a spell, it does indeed help to chase oblivion.
There's not usually an hourlong wait for lunch at Bouldin, nor is there usually a line outside the door of the Aristocrat. But the day in question was no ordinary day: It was January 20, 2017, and Donald Trump had just been sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States. While there was nothing anyone could do to prevent his inevitable swearing-in, establishments like Bouldin Creek and the Aristocrat did what they could to clap back at our new president, who many people view as a threat to civil liberties and democracy itself. They gave people the opportunity to speak with their dollars, and the response was deafening.
On that day, The Aristocrat raised $1,000 each for the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and $3,000 for SafePlace. Bouldin raised $3,000 divided between Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the SPLC. While Austin restaurants have long embraced the art of the fundraising dinner, the Trump Era has innervated and galvanized restaurateurs and diners both to push back against the values being codified by the autocrat and his right-wing regime.
The potential for Austin restaurants to economically culture-jam the values of Trump and his team of ideologues is considerable. In 2016, Americans spent more on dining out ($54.8 billion) than on groceries ($52.5 billion). Texas restaurants enjoyed $42.6 billion in sales volume in 2014, second only to California; Texas also has one of the largest restaurant workforces in the country. The Austin dining industry is a powerful economic engine, with restaurants and bars generating nearly $2 billion in economic activity and employing nearly 27,000 people.
What's more, many of today's sticky cultural issues intersect in the restaurant space, particularly those pertaining to race, gender, and immigration status. That intersection makes the potential for power and for change from within the Austin restaurant industry very real and very formidable.
Resistance comes in phases and waves. We form our values based on our individual experience. From there, we build like-minded communities and work within them to effect change. And then, when the shit hits the fan, those communities mobilize to take radical action for justice. Austin restaurant entrepreneurs are no exception to this process of galvanization.
One group of local restaurant and bar owners – Ashley Cheng of SPUN Ice Cream, Deepa Shridhar of Anjore, and Lindsey Peebles of Texas Keeper Cider – in the wake of the November election, organized the monthly Chix dinner series, geared toward gathering women together to "get together, have a good time, support good causes, and eat chicken." For a minimum $3 donation to the appointed nonprofit, participants enjoy a collaborative meal served with locally made cider. They are encouraged to bring in-kind donations of tangible items requested by the nonprofit beneficiaries, which have to date included Girlstart, Planned Parenthood, and GirlForward, which supports refugee youth in the Austin area.
"We were already in talks to start this series, but the day after the election, we realized that we are in this very special position, being in the restaurant industry, to build community," says Cheng. "We're not creating a political series; it's genuinely open to all genders and all ages and we definitely want to create a conversation around different issues every month. With everyone striking out at each other on social media, we thought we had a really special opportunity to get people together to talk face-to-face."
The Jan. 28 Chix brunch raised more than $1,000 for GirlForward, far surpassing the few hundred dollars raised at the first two Chix gatherings. The next gathering takes place on March 4, and will benefit the Anti-Defamation League of Texas.
While raising funds for worthy causes is definitely a plus, the higher purpose of the Chix dinner/brunch series is to serve as a gateway to community interaction and involvement. "I think one really cool thing that's happened from this election is that it's lit this fire in people around social justice and activism," Cheng says. "People feel called to use their skills to use what they have to do something or create something. They feel a call to action or a yearning to be a part of something bigger."
Others choosing the "radical action" path include the upscale Italian restaurant L'oca d'oro, located in the burgeoning Mueller development. While chef Fiore Tedesco and general manager Adam Orman aren't shimmying up construction cranes to amplify their message, they are staking their business on their ethics. First, Orman and Tedesco added L'oca d'oro to the growing list of sanctuary restaurants across the country, which designates it as a "hate- and discrimination-free workplace," regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or immigration status. Then, they hosted March on the Kitchen on Jan. 25, a ticketed dinner featuring female chefs and beverage pros from respected local restaurants (including Susana Querejazu of Barley Swine, Abby Love of Dai Due, and sommelier Vilma Mazaite) to benefit SAFE Austin, a coalition of nonprofits dedicated to ending child abuse, domestic abuse, and sexual assault, as well as to codify their dedication to making women in the culinary industry feel safe, supported, and respected.
"Just being a good restaurant and nice people isn't enough," says Orman.
"It's worth noting that the concepts behind the sanctuary restaurant movement have been the foundation of what we do and how we do it, how we hire and train and treat our employees," says Tedesco.
"Is this a place where I'd want my daughter to work? It should be an easy 'yes' for any business," he continues. "That was an opening thesis, that if we were going to open a restaurant, we were going to do that with an ethic and a common morality."
March on the Kitchen, no doubt energized by the previous weekend's historic Women's March, sold out with more than 150 reservations, and raised more than $10,000 for SAFE Austin. And while L'oca d'oro and Black Star Co-op are currently the only two sanctuary restaurants in Austin, Orman and Tedesco are hopeful that they are leading by example and can convince other operations to sign on.
"Participation is power. It doesn't do us any good to stand out alone," says Tedesco. "If everybody's doing this, if we equal the playing field, we make this a better environment across the board within the restaurants, then it's a better industry here. And then Austin can be a leading example throughout the country. But even just keeping it in Austin, we have the power to form a coalition as restaurants to have a voice with the City Council, to have a voice within the state. Two restaurants is not going to do it, no matter how loud we bark."
In Austin at least, there is evidence that resistance is building to a huge groundswell. King Bee and Rio Rita pledged a percentage of their Jan. 31 sales to Planned Parenthood, and Cenote pledged a portion of its Feb. 1 sales to the ACLU. Quack's donated brownies to a bake sale benefiting Planned Parenthood later that same week, and Nomad Bar lent its space to postcard-writing parties organized by a neighborhood activist. It's often said that the best way to make one's voice heard is by voting with one's wallet. More and more local restaurants and bars are giving Austinites the opportunity to put their dollars where their progressive ideals are. It's possible that the future of democracy may be as close as your next dinner out.