The pandemic has been a tricky time for the French Laundry. Since the region’s food industry shut down, its founder has tweeted support of our controversial president, and the venue became a magnet for politicians who told constituents to stay at home and dine alone as they enjoyed lavish, unmasked parties on its Yountville patio. And now it’s also a symbol of the inequity of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was supposedly intended to help “mom-and-pop” businesses survive the coronavirus crisis — but sent a vaunted restaurant $2.4 million, while small businesses who were denied funds shuttered across the country.
You remember the PPP program. Launched by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) over the summer of 2020, the program promised loans that were supposed to allow small businesses struggling under the weight of coronavirus-related shutdowns to retain employees for as long as eight weeks after the funds were accepted. The problem was that most applicants didn’t get any loan money before the program ran out of funds, while large chains and high-profile companies raked in millions.
As Eater reported in July, though the loans were intended for small businesses, companies like Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, and P.F. Chang’s received six-figure checks (Shake Shack and Sweetgreen returned their loans following a public outcry).
The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller’s 3-Michelin-star spot, also received two large loans, for a total of $2.4 million, ABC 7 reports, to retain a total of 167 employees. The loans, both of which were approved on April 30, 2020, are “17 times more than what the average Bay Area restaurant received” — and that’s just counting the restaurants that were able to score loans before the funds ran out.
Keller’s loans were approved less than two weeks after the famously exacting chef took to Twitter to scold so-called “haters” who were troubled by his support of President Trump. After Keller tweeted that he was “honored” that Trump asked him (along with three other white male chefs) to join the White House’s all-male “Great American Economic Revival Industry Group,” hundreds of fans and foes of Keller’s asked why he’d play ball with the problematic president, and to join a group so strikingly lacking in diversity. “II, with many of my colleagues, have decided we have to fight to attempt to save our industry as a whole. While we may be fighting for different things, it’s all for one goal,” Keller responded in a thread of tweets. “Whether the broken PPP, the need for business insurance relief, or the unprecedented economic hardship – each issue is dire…Shame on those who think working with the federal government is reprehensible.”
Whether the broken PPP, the need for business insurance relief, or the unprecedented economic hardship – each issue is dire. More than 15 million people’s livelihoods are at stake right now. Shame on those who think working with the federal government is reprehensible.
— Thomas Keller (@Chef_Keller) April 16, 2020
It’s unclear if any of Keller’s PPP money was left when the restaurant reopened for indoor dining in September with an $850-per-person “experience” that included aspirational menu signifiers like Dom Perignon, truffles, caviar, foie gras, and wagyu beef. Similarly, by November 6, when Gov. Gavin Newsom attended an unmasked birthday dinner for lobbyist Jason Kinney, or the day after, when SF Mayor London Breed also attended a party there, that cash was likely all gone.
(Both of those politicians’ visits to the French Laundry came at the same time they were making passionate pleas to constituents not to gather with members outside their households and to stay home whenever possible. Both have since apologized and said that they regret attending the dinners at Keller’s restaurant.)
As of publication time, the French Laundry is about to close again for sit-down service, as the Bay Area’s ICU beds have dropped below 15 percent and the entire region must now adhere to the state’s stay-at-home order. It’s unclear what Keller’s restaurant will do next — is an $850 meal still worth $850 when it comes in a box? — but one thing seems certain: for three weeks, maybe more, California leaders will have to find another restaurant to gather for politically dicey meals.