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A fight to stay alive: new restaurant association gains quick clout amid pandemic

Michael Dene, one of the founding members of the Long Beach Restaurant Association left, and Ciaran Gough, President, of the association right, at Gough, restaurant The 908 in Long Beach Thursday, December 3, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Big-name restaurateurs in Long Beach had tried for years to form a collective to advocate on behalf of local eateries.

But it took a pandemic, and restrictions on dining that threaten to put many restaurants out of business, for the effort to find success. 

“It gave us the true impetus to go forward,” said Michael Dene, one of the founding members of the Long Beach Restaurant Association and whose restaurants include Micahel’s on Naples, Michael’s Downtown and Chianina Steakhouse. “Necessity is the thing that put us together.”

And success they’ve had: The association, formed only a few months ago in March, has managed to have a big impact in a short amount of time. Now with 120 members and counting, the group has hired a lobbyist, and managed to accomplish real results:

  • After meetings with several city council members, the association succeeded in having their plight brought to the council in the form of a study session on Tuesday, Dec. 8.
  • The city’s economic development and finances committee also recently discussed a potential relief program for restaurants.

The mayor has held several private calls with members of the association, and has been sympathetic to their plight in public statements and with city resources—including federal CARES Act stimulus funds.

Still, the city has largely followed Los Angeles County in enacting restrictions on dining to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including a controversial ban on dine-in service after cases of the virus spiked dramatically in late November and into December.

From its founding until today, the association has also served as a support network that has been meeting on a bi-weekly basis.

“A little bit of tragedy brought us all together,” said Ciaran Gough, owner of The 908 restaurant and president of the association. “A lot of us were just wondering what to do.”

While some restaurant owners may have seen each other as competitors prior to the current crisis, the economic pressure of the recent months and the confusion around the various government support programs have been a uniting force, Gough said.

“There was actually comfort in us coming together,” he said.

Though they understand the pandemic is serious, Gough said some of the decisions just didn’t make sense.

“We just want to have a voice, have a seat at the table,” he said of the association.

One of the critical decisions they made was to hire lobbyist Alex Cherin from one of the most prestigious local public relations firms, Englander Knabe & Allen, to get their message out.

“We’ve all had to invest not just our time, we actually had to invest some money to get this off the ground, in what is the most financially challenging time we’ve all lived through,” Gough said.

But, he added, “the alternative is to have nothing.”

What might seem like a meteoric rise for the group has been long in the making, Gough said. “Like the duck going across the pond, those feet were moving underneath.”

In the long run, the association hopes to become more than just an advocacy group, pooling resources to gain more purchasing power, for example. There’s strength in numbers, Dene said, and by coming together as one, the various independent restaurants in Long Beach could negotiate better deals with suppliers and inform policy at city hall.

But for now, Dene said, the focus is on making it through this current crisis.

“We emphasize with each other, we take a lead from each other and we cry together,” he said. “Because at this time, the challenge really is just to stay alive.”

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