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Conduit: “The service industry is a haven”

Morris Ramen chef Francesca Hong discusses her efforts to get relief for local restaurants during the pandemic.

Morris Ramen chef Francesca Hong discusses her efforts to get relief for local restaurants during the pandemic.

Photo by Stephanie Yin Zhao, Illustration by UnderBelly and Tone Madison.

Ordering takeout, buying gift cards, donating to a virtual tip jar—it’s all well and good, but it’s nowhere near close to what it’ll really take to help shuttered restaurants and out-of-work service industry employees survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Madison’s food scene, one of our greatest sources of local pride and a key sector of our economy, will need a lot of immediate public funding and a lot of change at a policy level to stay afloat. Francesca Hong, chef and co-owner of Morris Ramen on King Street, has emerged as a leading voice as restaurants across Wisconsin call on state and local leaders to act.

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“I think all restaurant owners are still somewhat in shock, and we’re incredibly conflicted at saving the livelihood of saving the livelihood of all our employees and our business, as well as making sure that the safety of the public and our employees is what we’re prioritizing,” Hong said on the April 2, 2020 edition of Conduit, a live-streamed collaboration between Tone Madison, Communication, and UnderBelly. 

There are a lot of parallels and connections here between the restaurant world and the arts world. Many creative people work in the service industry, and restaurants have a symbiotic relationship with live performance venues, especially downtown—when you have dinner at Morris before going across the street for a show at the Majestic, you take part in that. Morris itself has served as a space where food and art intertwine, for instance during a collaborative dinner with conceptual artist Kel Mur. In the bigger picture, both food and the arts are things our civic leaders supposedly value, but don’t really understand or support. In the absence of a strong infrastructure, they’re both underwritten by thankless labor and precarious business models. And that’s why both sectors need to start acting like unified political constituencies.

So far, Hong says the response from Madison’s city government has been pretty feeble, and response from the Wisconsin legislature’s accountability-proof Republican majority has been just about non-existent. Hong acknowledges that the Madison Common Council, during its meeting this week, temporarily waived some fees for restaurants, but it won’t be near enough. “I think they’re all really small things that won’t actually help the life of the industry right now in the long run,” Hong says. “I think there need to be aggressive grants, I think there needs to be aggressive tax relief, and I think there needs to be a massive push and pressure on property owners to have rent moratoriums. I don’t think abatement is enough anymore.”

While calling for specific action—including emergency unemployment benefits for all of the service workers in the state, eliminating the sales tax and payroll tax, and rent and loan relief for workers and employers—Hong has also worked to open more people’s eyes to the economic realities of the restaurant world. Even prestigious and expensive restaurants operate on slim profit margins and generally rely on a short-term revenue stream to stay open.

“If you were focusing on taking care of your workers and being part of your community, and providing not only a social space but a community space where you’re building relationships and you’re nourishing people and you care about hospitality deeply, these are the places that I feel like have the thinnest margins and now are at the biggest risk of closing,” Hong says. 

If you’re interested in helping local restaurants and their workers get through this, Hong has put together a list of links and resources.

Conduit takes place Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. On April 9, we’ll hear from the folks at ArtWorking, a local non-profit that supports artists with disabilities. On April 16, our guest will be Madison musician Luke Bassuener, discussing his solo project Asumaya and his recent arts residency with the Glacial Lakes Conservancy.

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Help us give our local arts scene the attention it deserves.

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