Danielle Leoni is a chef without a restaurant. But her work is far from done.
A month ago, Leoni and her partner Dwayne Allen closed their Caribbean restaurant in downtown Phoenix, The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, for an indefinite time. Switching to takeout brought too few customers to keep their employees paid and lights on.
They wasted little time.
Days later they published an open letter to Gov. Doug Ducey listing a number of ways the state could help small, independent restaurants during and after the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 3, when it was last updated,the letter had collected 1,120 signatures from people across the food and beverage industry — and beyond. The letter was only the start.
Since then, Leoni and Allen have formed the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition and these days, they spend much of their time organizing and reaching out to Ducey's office on behalf of the restaurant industry.
Their efforts, alongside those of other small business owners, seem to be working.
On March 31, Ducey announced all liquor license fees will be deferred for 90 days, a response to one of the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition's requests. While the coalition petitioned for fees to be deferred for 90 days after the crisis ends, Leoni felt encouraged to see the state take action.
Then on April 6, Ducey ordered commercial landlords must stop evicting small businesses that can't pay rent during the coronavirus pandemic. Leoni and Stephanie Vasquez, owner of Fair Trade Cafe in Phoenix, led the call for this protection.
Closing The Breadfruit and Rum Bar made Leoni feel like everything she fought for to make the restaurant a success was crumbling. She can't separate the restaurant from who she is. Now that's gone, Leoni said.
But in this time of uncertainty, Leoni turns to a lesson her uncle taught her when she was young: If there's a problem, don't just talk about it — fix it.
"All of us who had to shut down our restaurants, a lot of us went home with that sinking feeling of loss," Leoni said. "I don’t do well with grief."
"I want to help and come up with solutions. I want to help fix this. This is who I am. This is what I know."
'I was going to change the world'
Leoni described herself in high school as a straight-A student who liked to volunteer. She joined a handful of clubs and ran for leadership positions. She organized street clean-ups, canned food drives and blood donations. Her senior year she won a scholarship from the Phoenix Camelback Rotary Club, The Arizona Republic reported in 1999.
But at home she felt powerless to help her own family.
Leoni lived then with her single mother in a cul-de-sac of ageing apartments. She remembers helping her mother clean houses after school and going to food banks — something she wouldn't tell anyone at school because she would "die of embarrassment," she said. Her mother, who didn't finish high school, worked various odd jobs to support them.
"I would see her struggle with things and think, 'How is it that she's struggling when she’s trying so hard?'" Leoni said. "The odds are skewed — when you’re down, you’re really down."
Her upbringing, growing up with food stamps and free school lunch, made her intimately aware of the differences between her and her classmates, Leoni said. When she wasn't at home, all she saw around her was the chance to fix things because at home she couldn't fix anything, she said.
After graduating from high school, Leoni attended Arizona State University and received her bachelor's degree in political science. She went on to work at Phoenix City Hall becoming assistant to then-councilman Greg Stanton.
But after about three years, Leoni left politics. Things in government moved too slowly for her liking, she said. She recalled a project she spent months on, meeting residents who wanted to get a swing set built in their district. In the end, it fell through simply because another district wasn't getting a swing set too, Leoni said.
Disillusioned, she left to find a new calling. When she and Allen opened The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, she established herself as a champion for sustainable seafood and local agriculture, focusing on food that was "good for people and good for the environment."
"That’s the best thing in life, right? Alleviating some kind of pain or suffering," Leoni said. "In the end, we just want to have happy, prosperous lives. I was going to change the world with writing policy. That was the plan, but that didn’t work out."
A chef turned small business champion
Even with The Breadfruit and Rum Bar closed, Leoni estimates she and Allen work at least eight hours every day.
They live together in F.Q.Story, a historic neighborhood in central Phoenix.
In the morning, she'll take out a yoga mat and stretch before putting on the tea kettle for Allen and making coffee in the French press for herself. Then they make breakfast and sit down together to eat, a comfortable routine they've kept up for 15 years.
When breakfast is over, she takes out her laptop and work begins.
Creosote Partners, a lobbying firm in Phoenix, is working with the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition on a pro bono basis. For Leoni and Allen, the days consist of a mix of tasks, among them: meeting people over Zoom, distributing resources to people who contact them, researching policy and contacting their legislators.
Leoni still bikes to The Breadfruit to water the plants and Allen also works in their warehouse, which he converted into a beverage production facility prior to the coronavirus crisis.
"We’re not politicians," Allen said. "This is not a space we normally operate in or want to stay in. We want to get back to our little corner in downtown Phoenix. It’s wonderful to have these folks (Creosote Partners) who are politically versed. The language of politics requires patience and I like to get things done."
Allen described himself as a rabble-rouser since his decade in the Marines, getting in trouble for similar actions to what he's doing now: speaking up when he feels it's warranted
He and Leoni met while they were both working for the city of Phoenix. Seeing how the government works from the inside has helped their current efforts, he said. He described Leoni as easy to work with, yet tough and demanding.
"She's very clear-eyed about what direction she's going, and when she decides to get involved in something, she is dogged," Allen said. "You have to be able to operate in that space right along with her."
Allen prefers working behind the scenes, comfortable with Leoni being the one who appears on camera and talks to the media.
"I'm the technician," Allen said "I get the nuts and bolts going. And she's the big picture kind of person. She's the face of what we do."
"One of the best values anyone in any relationship can have, it’s the absolute sense that you can trust the other person to get it right on your behalf," he said.
How other chefs are helping the cause
In a disaster of this magnitude, small businesses need not only immediate relief, but a plan for transitioning back when the public health crisis ends, Leoni said.
Leoni isn't alone when it comes to vocalizing her industry's needs.
Stephanie Vasquez from Fair Trade Cafe started a petition asking the government for eviction protection, access to capital, a pause in utility shutoffs and a break from sales taxes.
Sadhana "Sasha" Raj, owner of 24 Carrots, a vegetarian restaurant in Tempe, started The Citizens Toolbox. People can use the online platform to write their lawmakers and urge them to replenish the paycheck loan fund.
"At the end of the day, we live in a world where, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive," Raj said.
Raj was one of the thousand-plus peoplewho signed the letter of demands Leoni penned for the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition. She and Leoni have volunteered on other projects before, such as FnB chef Charleen Badman's Blue Watermelon Project to improve school lunches.
Since the restaurant shut-downs, some economic relief has come through the federal CARES Act that was signed late March. The coronavirus relief package established two types of loans for small businesses, the economic injury disaster loans and paycheck protection loans.
But on Thursday, April 16, the Small Business Administration announced it had run out of money for paycheck loans. The paycheck program was unable to help 90% of Arizona's small businesses before it ran out of money, The Republic reported.
Raj said she applied for the paycheck program the day it opened, only to learn two weeks later funds had run dry and she would not receive a loan.
On Tuesday, Congress reached an agreement to inject more funding into the paycheck program. But The Citizens Toolbox website notes the federal government has already dispersed millions of dollars in paycheck program funds to publicly traded companies.
Some of the businesses that received millions of dollars from the Small Business Administration include Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Shake Shack — though Shake Shack agreed to send back its $10 million loan, USA Today reported.
Raj said she's been following Leoni's work and she applauds the efforts Valley chefs are making to support their community, whether it's penning op-eds or cooking free meals for the most vulnerable people in their community.
"Signatures absolutely work," Raj said. "Messages on Instagram on work. A chorus of people calling in and keeping our issues on the forefront of our representatives' minds works. No one person can do that. It will take a lot of us to absolutely do that."
But Raj also recognizes not everyone is in a position like them to invest their time advocating or providing charity — and that's also OK. It's up to the rest of them to speak up on behalf of those who can't, she said.
"For those in our restaurant community, this is deeply traumatic and we recognize that," Raj said. "Not everybody has the support system in their life or circumstances to lend their voice."
What's next for Arizona restaurant owners?
Currently the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition is urging the Arizona Department of Revenue to suspend late fees and interest on transaction privilege tax, also known as TPT. Transaction privilege taxes are levied on any business selling a product or service in Arizona.
Leoni said she's not advocating for not paying taxes; she's advocating for a 24-month repayment plan for the taxes small business owners owe in April. The solution they propose isn't all-or-nothing situation either, but an open conversation, she added.
Elected officials are under a tremendous amount of pressure and dealing with a lot of moving parts, Leoni said. It's important to empathize, as well as look for common values and priorities if they want to move the community forward, she said.
"I don't belive Gov. Ducey has the power to fix everything, but he does have the power to hit pause and prevent us from being dragged through the mud of bureaucracy," Leoni said. "The Arizona Department of Revenue is saying they're going to assess those penalties on a case by case basis. Why not just make it forgiven during COVID-19?"
Leoni wants to make it clear her work involves more than "just Danielle and Dwayne from The Breadfruit." The Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition has a website now where both the general public and other business owners can volunteer to get involved.
They're meeting virtually with state legislators and other organizations, including the Arizona Craft Brewers Guild, Arizona Vignerons Alliance and the Arizona Restaurant Association, which has started a relief fund for laid-off restaurant workers. Business organizations with similar concerns have also gotten involved, including Local First, DTPHX and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
"Our focus is on the state level," Leoni said. "There’s bigger organizations like the James Beard Foundation that are working hard and well at a federal level. Having our feet on the ground and our eyes on the community, we can address the gaps the federal level might see, that our elected officials don’t see because they don’t own or operate the way we do as small businesses."
Democratic Sen. Martín Quezada recently attended a virtual town hall with Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition. There may be some legal challenges for some of the coalition's requests, but he believes all the requests should at least be considered by state legislature. That's not happening yet, he said.
Quezada represents legislative District 29, a largely Hispanic area that encompasses the Maryvale neighborhood in Phoenix and part of Glendale. He wants to make sure his community is represented in the ongoing discussion and that as resources become available, the information is relayed to people who don't speak English as a primary language or lack access to internet.
"Small businesses and restaurants play huge part of our economy," Quezada said. "Letting them crash and burn is only going to hurt us later, especially when we want to fund programs that rely on (their) money the state takes in. We’re just shooting ourselves in the foot."
So far, neither Ducey nor Republican legislators have reached out directly to the Arizona Small Restaurant Coalition, Leoni said. Saving small, local businesses isn't a partisan issue, so she hopes that changes in the near future, she said.
"High tide lifts all boats," Leoni said.