Amid Travel Ban Debate, Chefs And Food Brands Take a Stand On Immigration

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Customers who walked through the door of Everyman Espresso, a cafe in New York's East Village, last weekend got a pitch at the check-out counter to support a fundraiser to help defend immigrants.

"We're donating 5 percent [of our proceeds] to the ACLU in response to the travel ban," Eric Grimm, a manager at the cafe, explained.

Grimm was referring to the executive order issued by President Trump restricting people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

Over 800 cafes around the country participated in the weekend fundraiser, which was the brainchild of Sprudge, a coffee publication and event organizer. Organizers say more than $200,000 was raised — though less than half of the cafes have reported their tallies, so they expect that number to keep rising.

"I think it speaks to the wider moment we're in right now," Jordan Michelman of Sprudge told us.

It's a way of saying "immigrants are welcome here," says Sam Penix, the owner of Everyman Espresso. Penix says he wants to remind people that "we're a nation of immigrants, a city of immigrants." And restaurants and cafes depend on immigrants as employees, too.

The food industry is often the on-ramp to employment for immigrants. An estimated one in four restaurant workers are foreign-born, according to an analysis done by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United using data from the Census' American Community Survey for 2015.

And the vast majority of farm workers are immigrants, many of whom are in the U.S. without legal authorization.

The U.S. food supply depends on immigrants. Ben Hall, a chef and co-owner of the Russell Street Deli in Detroit, says lots of people don't realize this. "We can't run a business without labor," says Hall.

Hall has designated his deli as a sanctuary restaurant, which is a nationwide movement aimed at promoting discrimination-free workplaces and helping protect workers from discriminatory acts based on their immigration status, gender, religion or other factors.

It's not just independent cafes and restaurants speaking up. Big brands have jumped in, too.

Just After President Trump's travel ban was announced, Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz wrote to all his employees assuring them "we are doing everything possible to support and help" employees who are impacted by the travel ban. For example, Starbucks is offering free legal advice to employees with questions about immigration status. And the company announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

The CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, who is foreign-born, sent an email to her employees after the travel ban was announced. "We are an incredibly diverse organization, comprised of men and women from all walks of life and every corner of the globe — including the countries impacted by this new policy," Nooyi wrote. Her email affirmed the value of diversity. "PepsiCo remains a place where everyone feels welcome and anyone can succeed. These are values we will never abandon," Nooyi wrote. She pledged to remain "steadfastly committed to the safety, security and well-being of all our associates."

As food companies decide how and whether to weigh in, some brands are finding that speaking up for immigrants and inclusion is good for business.

"This is a very important time and we really want to be part of this conversation," says Sepanta Bagherpour, director of marketing at Nando's Peri-Peri, a chicken restaurant chain. (He's South African.) The company is currently promoting its Everyone Is Welcome campaign.

Nando's has 38 restaurants in the U.S. and 1,200 internationally. When I walked by one of the Washington, D.C., locations, I noticed a big, bold sign in the storefront window that read:

"Nando's Peri-Peri is an immigrant employing, gay loving, Muslim respecting, racism opposing, equal paying, multi-cultural restaurant."

Bagherpour says the Nando's brand — which began in South Africa in the waning days of apartheid — is built on social commentary. And he says this campaign has been good for business. The company says that traffic and sales have jumped compared to the same time last year.

But taking sides in this national conversation has its risks.

"We've definitely seen push back," says Russell Street Deli's Ben Hall. After he was featured in a national business story on the sanctuary restaurant movement, he was slammed on social media.

There were comments such as: "I'll never ever eat in your restaurant," and "I only want my food [to be] made by an American."

Hall says he was taken aback, but he realizes this conversation elicits strong feelings on both sides. And, in the end, despite the negative comments on social media, his deli has been more crowded than usual for this time of year.

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