Francesca Hong on the road from restaurants to politics
Witnessing government and system failures as a restaurant owner prompted Hong to stand up for food industry workers in the Wisconsin state legislature.
Zagat Stories presents Catering 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices from the fields of catering, hospitality, gastronomy, technology, politics and more. Each story takes the turn of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what is likely to happen in 2022, in the restaurant and food world. See all the stories here. And don’t hesitate to take a look at last year’s collection as well.
Francesca Hong was elected representative for the 76th District of the Wisconsin State Assembly in November 2020. She is also the first Asian American to serve in the state legislature. She is a co-owner of Morris Ramen in Madison and co-founder of the Culinary Ladies Collective, a professional network of Wisconsin women.
The pandemic played a big part in my decision to run for the state assembly. And I think that was the first time that I had experienced uncontrollable grief, like many of us, and had fallen into this deep grief and this deep fear, this feeling of helplessness.
I felt compelled to have a strong and progressive voice of the working class, to once again build coalitions between workers and small businesses, between the understanding that we can only advance as a multiracial coalition. The restaurant industry also relied on the fact that it has a huge number of disparities, and that we have not been viable for a very long time.
When COVID hit, I think there was a deeper understanding of the need for mental health support within industry, and outside of it – the fact that different industries really can’t function on their own. The need for partnerships and support for the restaurant industry was clear.
As a restaurant, we couldn’t function without community ties and an understanding of the nonprofit industry and support networks. It was very evident in the Madison community, and I don’t think it gets enough credit. There were a lot of people, especially in our industry, who had difficulty navigating the unemployment system – myself included.
As a business owner, I wasn’t just trying to figure out how to keep the lights on, but also really help my people navigate this system, and figure out how we were going to both support our staff and make sure. so that they would have a safer environment to work.
We found refuge by finding a new purpose for our workers: to turn our restaurant into a community kitchen and use our P3 funds to rehire them.
We paid our workers to cook meals for the community, while moving on to delivery and delivery, and ensuring that every Cook It Forward partner is paid fairly.
We were closed from March 17, 2020 until the first week of May. I announced my candidacy on Mother’s Day.
I think restaurant workers are intrinsically attached to care. What it looks like, and how it is defined, should relate to politics. Income disparities, housing, public transportation â what has a direct impact on the service sector workforce also affects the workforce in Wisconsin.
As a member of the minority Democratic Party, we are not always the group in power. We work in a legislature led by an authoritarian Republican regime. My job, as a member of the working class and in the hospitality industry, is to really help people see that all of our problems are intertwined and that our communities care about each other when our politicians leave us behind. . Not only do I want to deeply understand what you are going through, but as a restaurateur, restaurant worker, mom, I have already experienced what you have too.
In Green Bay, with State Representative Kristina M. Shelton and State Senator Chris Larson, we introduced the âhealthy school meals for allâ law. It will reimburse public and private schools in Wisconsin that qualify for the free breakfast and lunch program, and expand the federal rebate. It ensures, regardless of their ability to pay, that every child in a Wisconsin school has a healthy breakfast and lunch during the school year. This is something that was deeply personal to me as a member of the restaurant industry: we made this law not only for our children, but also for our food industry workers, our farmers and the broader food service ecosystem.
We introduced a bill that will provide grants to counties in Wisconsin for down payments on homes that would extend to those who qualify below the federal poverty line. We also introduced the Due Diligence Act, which would help prevent evictions by requiring landlords and tenants to apply for federal rent assistance before the landlord issues an eviction notice. One of the first resolutions we brought forward was the Economic Justice Bill of Rights, which is truly a toolbox of our progressive values. We take it as a message that all people in Wisconsin, regardless of their industry, have the right to affordable housing, high quality health care, and accessible public education, and should live without discrimination. , whatever their origin.
Currently, I am the only Asian American legislator in the entire state legislature, so it is important for me to increase the visibility of our community. We have been successful in having Pacific Islander Asiatic American Heritage Month recognized statewide, and we are trying to lobby to include education on Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi Americans and Hmong Americans in the Wisconsin public school curriculum.
At Morris Ramen, I’m more behind the scenes with administrative work, which allows me to have a more flexible schedule and work after âday shiftâ. Then I cover on the line or in the front of the house when we have family members who need a break. I think I’m lucky to be able to have both, and even though I can’t balance all the time, there is a purpose to working as a team in a restaurant that I don’t get in a day job.
The labor shortage in the food industry is a very clear signal that we need to invest in our workers for the long term. As restaurant owners and operators, we need the support of policy makers to make this happen. We need to have the tools to deliver the kinds of benefits that other careers enjoy. We need to make sure that our workers see that a career in the restaurant industry is possible and sustainable, and that we are committed to ensuring the overall well-being of our workers.
You see a lot of women leaving the service industry because it’s hard to find daycare during restaurant hours. It could be a morning baking shift that starts at 3 a.m. It could be an evening shift that starts at four o’clock and ends at midnight. And the buses don’t always run at this time, and there isn’t always a daycare. So by investing in this infrastructure of care, there are certainly policies that gain support.
I represent the most engaged district in the state. They’ve been so gracious to share with me everything they know about what’s going on at the political level, whether it’s the city, the county or the federal government, and they always want to know what we can do because their representative is in the minority party. And my answer is to build coalitions.
We tell people that we are fighting for a lot of the things we all need in this state – even if we do not share all of the core values ââ- and that our office and Governor Tony Evers are absolutely fighting for a fairer Wisconsin, which will propel us forward.