Silicon Valley Restaurant Association launches in San Jose
Customers flowed through San Jose eatery Habana Cuba before the pandemic. The business, which depends on holiday catering, is struggling under COVID-19 restrictions. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Echeverri, owner of Habana Cuba.

After being battered by COVID-19 and business closures, Silicon Valley eateries have an advocacy group—a local restaurant association.

The Silicon Valley Restaurant Association, formed by San Jose consultant Sean Kali-rai and former Silicon Valley Organization (SVO) government relations director Eddie Truong, launches Tuesday. Kali-rai is a longtime policy analyst and cannabis lobbyist, while Truong rose through the SVO’s public policy ranks over the last five years.

The restaurant association will serve as an advocacy group and chamber of commerce for the restaurant industry across Silicon Valley, similar to the California Restaurant Association, which represents the sector on a state level.

During the pandemic, business owners faced ever-changing regulations from the county: everything from rent moratoriums to opening and closing indoor dining multiple times. Restaurants, the two local leaders said, were hammered by COVID-19 health care mandates.

“They took the brunt of the ire from the customers,” Kali-rai told San José Spotlight. “(The restaurants) just felt like they needed a voice that could speak to the county and speak to cities and help them navigate everything.”

Both Truong and Kali-rai want the association to serve as a way for restaurant owners to collectively agree on industry policies, much like the San Jose Downtown Association and San Jose Chamber of Commerce—formerly the SVO. The association will focus on tracking legislation locally and statewide, running newsletter campaigns and developing common social media resources for restaurants. Owners can register through the association’s website.

Truong and Kali-rai estimate 20 sponsored businesses have already joined the association.

The need for a restaurant association became evident, the two said, as the pandemic began to wreak havoc on the industry, and hit minority-owned businesses much harder. According to a San José Spotlight report, 33% of small business owners across the state were unable to pay their full rent on time in November 2020. The number was higher for minority-owned small businesses at approximately 38%.

A local association is welcome news for restaurateurs like Jennifer Echeverri, owner of Habana Cuba, a Cuban restaurant inside SoFA Market. She was awarded a grant from food delivery app DoorDash earlier this year. But companies such as DoorDash also take a cut of restaurants’ earnings when customers order using the app.

The city’s grant programs have helped her and businesses inside the market stay afloat. But many COVID relief efforts have slowed to barely a trickle. For example, the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program ended in May.

“Everyone wants to make a buck off the restaurants and the restaurants aren’t the ones making the money,” Echeverri told San José Spotlight. “So if there was some kind of control over that, it would be great. Because there’s no one in San Jose who can speak up for us.”

Similar local organizations in other parts of the Bay Area have helped restaurants navigate the pandemic. The Golden Gate Restaurant Association, which lobbies on behalf of San Francisco-based restaurants, supported efforts to enforce mask mandates for workers in the city and urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to extend outdoor dining during the fall. The San Francisco Bar Owners Alliance banded together in July to require proof of vaccination for any patrons entering participating bars.

San Jose business owners didn’t have a hyperlocal restaurant organization to lean on and mostly had to rely on word of mouth to make sense of the county’s public health orders. Having an association, Truong and Kali-rai said, will make advocacy work much easier.

“We’re here to fill a void,” Truong told San José Spotlight. “To really have a lobbying and business advocacy voice.”

For more information on the new Silicon Valley Restaurant Association, click here.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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