Restaurateurs React To Indiana's Controversial RFRA

As Indiana politicians, including governor Mike Pence, find themselves in the midst of a national firestorm of negative reaction to the state's newly signed Religious Freedom Restoration Act — which in effect guarantees for-profit businesses the right to discriminate against customers they consider to be offensive on religious grounds — Indiana's hospitality community is stepping up to fight the new law, which is seen by many as a means to discriminate against the LGBT community.

Restaurateur Martha Hoover, for example, a semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurateur in the 2013 James Beard Foundation restaurant and chef awards, is holding a fundraiser for Lambda Legal, a national organization that works to secure full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and transgender people.

Her restaurant group includes half a dozen Café Patachou locations, as well as Petite Chou Bistro & Champagne Bar, Public Greens, and three Napolese artisan pizzerias. For the fundraiser, her restaurants that are open in the evenings — Petite Chou and the three pizzerias — will host fundraising dinners called The Great Patachou Sit-In to Benefit Lambda Legal. A $100-per-couple seasonal menu will include a shared appetizer, salad, and pizza at Napolese locations or a shared appetizer, salad, and individual entrées at Petite Chou, as well as a bottle of wine and mini desserts. In addition, Hoover said, Uber has agreed to provide anyone dining at one of the dinners with a special code for a free ride home.[pullquote:left]

For Hoover, efforts to change or repeal the law are part of creating a welcoming environment for customers and staff. "I'm lucky every day that anyone chooses to open the door to one of my restaurants," she said, "and they need to be welcomed. That really is what the hospitality industry does — they welcome people. Restaurants are at the very center of the hospitality industry."

Indianapolis chef Jonathan Brooks, who was just named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs for 2015, posted on his Facebook page that his restaurant, Milktooth, will be holding a fundraising dinner as well, to "show the world that this legislation does not represent Indy."

Some local restaurateurs are even switching ice machine companies in response to RFRA. State senator Scott Schneider (R-Indianapolis), who was a co-author of the legislation, is a vice-president at his family's company, Mister Ice of Indianapolis, which leases the equipment. Hoover said that although she has worked with Mister Ice for 25 years and leases 15 to 18 ice makers, she will be phasing out company's machines. "The core values of our businesses are just so different," she said. "I don't expect everyone to agree lockstep with everything that I agree with... [but]... we are moving in another direction, with a company that has a more open and tolerant view."

A group of Southern Indiana chefs and food artisans, who call themselves The Goat Kicks Back, is also working on anti-RFRA fundraising efforts, in conjunction with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. Judith Schad of Capriole Goat Cheese, Susan Welsand of The Chile Woman, James Beard semifinalist chefs David Tallent of Restaurant Tallent and Daniel Orr of FARMbloomington, David Fletcher of BLU Boy Café and Cakery, David Fischer of Fischer Farms, and Indiana University professor and Slow Food Bloomington co-founder Christine Barbour — along with other Indianapolis chefs and food artisans — are exploring ways to offer products and hold events to benefit anti-RFRA efforts.

Rather than boycotting Indiana restaurants and producers, Barbour said, consumers can actively support those who are working for repeal. "It's just a shame that these same folks are paying a price in lost business as they are held accountable by people outside the state for a law they neither passed nor support," Barbour said. "The economic damage from this unfortunate piece of legislation is going to hit people who have just dug out of the recession."

Boycotts against Indiana and its products are a real concern. Already, other states and cities have prohibited official travel to Indiana because of RFRA. Out-of-state celebrities have condemned the law; the band Wilco has cancelled an upcoming concert in Indianapolis, and conventions such as Gen-Con are considering whether to relocate from the city.

But reactions to RFRA affect cities across the state as well. "This is far-reaching," said Patrick Tamm, president and CEO of the Indiana Restaurant and Lodging Association. "From northern Indiana, I have had food deliveries denied by Michigan customers." For Indianapolis, Tamm stresses the economic impact that losing convention business could have. "We are the No. 1 city for group business," he said. "We rely on group business more than any other market in the country. That group business to us is so, so critical."

Tamm said he has been meeting with the governor's office, legislative leaders, and a broad coalition of people about how the legislation is affecting the hospitality industry. "I am hopeful that we will get a fix," he said.

Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy, which works to bring visitors, conventions, and events to the city, said it will take a concerted effort to counteract the legislation's negative effects. "I think it's going to take everyone in the community to rally and make sure the world knows that Hoosier hospitality is alive and well," Gahl said. "It's something that our city's brand has been largely dependent on for some years, so it's absolutely essential that we get out the word that just because a bill has been signed doesn't mean that Hoosier hospitality is gone."