The Community Pact: How to Open a Restaurant While Centering the Community and Resisting Gentrification

“Am I a gentrifier?” I get asked this a lot. It’s a question laced with fear, guilt, anxiety, and maybe a bit of defensiveness.  It was also at the heart of a conversation I had recently with Chef Roy Choi for his tv show, “Broken Bread,” which airs on PBS.  For many of us who are concerned about gentrification, we often feel at a loss for what to do and spend time debating in our heads about whether we should do anything at all because we fear taking the wrong action. 

Meanwhile, the gentrification of our communities continues to be driven forward by an army of speculators, real estate agents, lobbyists, business “improvement” boosters, and investors working towards one common goal: buy and redevelop property to make money! 

So these days when someone asks me, “Am I a gentrifier?” my response to them is “It doesn’t matter. What matters is what YOU are going to do about it?” because the fact is doing nothing, whether out of fear or indifference, is allowing the problem to continue and get worse. 

Instead, we can choose to do something so that every action we take is a step towards change. 

What steps can restaurant and business owners do to support positive change? While there are no quick and easy answers, at Chef Roy’s request, I wrote a Restaurant and Shop Owner Community Pact that can serve as a starting point.  We don’t expect concerned restaurant and shop owners to be able to adopt all of these strategies all at once. But adopting some of these strategies will allow those businesses that want to do the right thing to move from passive observers to active community members fighting for positive change in our community. 

Restaurant and Shop Owner Community Pact

  1. Learn about and understand the history, reality, and vulnerabilities/strengths of our neighborhood 
    • Learn about the history, culture, and issues of the people who live and work in the community. What are their strengths, challenges, needs and priorities? Make an effort to talk and learn about the most vulnerable members of the community.
    • Learn about local issues such as: gentrification, displacement of long-time immigrant businesses, tenant harassment, language access, etc. 
    • Come with empathy and a self-reflective attitude, situating your own actions in the context of community concerns and dynamics.  How can you and your business best support the community you’re a part of? Think critically about any potential or unintended harms you might be reinforcing.
  1. Leverage your power and your resources to protect the existing community. Do you have the ear of key decision makers? A strong social media presence? Are you seen as a respected voice among your peers? 
    • Join events and actions challenging landlords to do better
    • Join local leaders in holding elected officials accountable
    • Amplify the voices of local campaigns/organizations fighting for tenants rights and equitable community development by centering the voices of marginalized community members. Examples of this can include:
      • Amplifying social media content about pressing campaigns to protect tenants and long-term community members from displacement
      • Allowing organizers to table or post signs at your business
      • Hosting community meetings or info sessions that support organizing efforts
    • Provide support for your staff who may engage in important community centered efforts by ensuring flexibility in scheduling and/or providing paid leave-time to support community organizing efforts or volunteering  
  1. Support the local economy
    • Set a goal for your business to hire locally and target workers coming from historically excluded communities, including workers with criminal justice, language access, and other barriers
    • Pay living wages, know and comply with local and state employment laws, and provide employer sponsored health benefits to your workers
    • Explore partnering with local organizations and other businesses to develop a job training & placement program
    • Support legacy and community serving small businesses e.g. source from local grocers
    • Support local street vendors and workers/entrepreneurs who face barriers to participating in the mainstream economy
  1. Work with local community leaders and non-profit organizations to support a community benefits fund, or give money directly to the following causes
    • Eviction defense/right to counsel
    • Wage theft prevention
    • Acquisition of at risk properties for affordable housing, or other community serving uses 
    • Efforts to protect existing affordable housing units from being demolished or converted to market-rate
    • Funding for social justice and tenant anti-eviction campaigns
    • Funding can come from:
      • Community benefits surcharge (similar to the “healthcare surcharge”)
      • Donate a % of profits
      • Host a fundraising event
      • Provide in-kind donations such as: food, event space, volunteer time, etc.
  • Protect communities of color in gentrifying neighborhoods from over policing and criminalization
    • Treat all members of the community with compassion and dignity.  Poverty or houselessness is not a crime. Do not harass, threaten, or remove members of the community.  Do not involve security or police unless an actual crime is being/has been committed. 
    • Provide training for your staff and security on resolving tense situations without escalating or involving the police. Make a good faith effort to contact a social service agency (call 211 or a local service provider) for community members in need of assistance. 
    • Design your space (including sidewalk dining spaces) to accommodate people who are more dependent on public spaces, e.g. seniors, people with mobility issues, youth, houseless neighbors and street vendors. Avoid interior or exterior design elements that prevent people from sitting, resting, or using public amenities.  Include community amenities such as shade, cooling stations, bathrooms, and charging stations as part of your business.
    • Treat everyone with dignity – create a “pay it forward” system for customers with means to provide meals for neighbors who are food insecure
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