In June, when news of immigrant families being separated at the border made headlines, Seattle chef and restaurateur Ericka Burke said she found herself in tears.
“I started thinking about my own kids, and the sense of desperation for them, and what if I never saw them again,” she said.
Burke said she began texting others in the industry, just to vent and find comfort. Within minutes, there was a text stream. That text stream grew into a collective need to “do something.”
Now, with a core group of eight, most of whom are chefs and restaurant operators across the city, Burke has launched an organization called +TogetherSeattle.
The goal of the organization is to give like-minded restaurant operators in the city an opportunity to make a difference.
“We all realized this is bigger than just family reunification. It’s about human rights in general,” said Burke, left, chef and owner of the restaurant Volunteer Park Cafe. “So we decided as a team that we wanted this to be an ongoing organization. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude with all the people who signed up.”
The first big project is Chefs+TogetherSeattle, a fundraising effort scheduled for Nov. 14 to benefit the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, a non-profit legal services organization that works with low-income immigrants and refugees.
More than 120 restaurants, bars, cafes, coffee shops and sweets shops have pledged 10 percent of profits that day, and many will also place donation boxes out for guests to contribute between Nov. 1 and Nov. 15.
Among those participating are Ba Bar, Bakery Nouveau, Bastille Café & Bar, Bok a Bok, Café Hitchcock and Lark.
“We’re basically trying to find a way to be impactful,” said John Sundstrom, chef-owner of the fine-dining concept Lark, and the fast-casual Slab Sandwiches + Pie and Southpaw, one of the core founding members. All three of his restaurants will participate, he said.
In the restaurant industry, the struggles immigrants face today are very real, he said.
“I have employees who deal with this kind of thing regularly, maybe they’re trying to get some long-term visa or family to join them. It’s not that far away from any of us,” he said. “I know certainly just from conversation with fellow chefs that there’s a lot of frustration and lots of ‘how can we get involved’ and use some of the platform chefs have.”
Other founding members from the restaurant world include Ethan Stowell, chef-owner of Ethan Stowell Restaurants; Tamara Murphy, chef-owner of Terra Plata; Monica Dimas of the multiconcept group Milkwood & Co.; and Brian Clevenger, whose General Harvest Restaurants include Le Messe, Raccolto, Vendemmia and East Anchor Seafood.
Next year, another larger event is planned at El Centro de la Raza, a social justice organization in Seattle that will host a family friendly gala with restaurants offering food and drink to raise money and awareness about human rights issues.
Details are being worked out, Burke said, but she hopes perhaps the group’s efforts will be replicated in other cities where people in the restaurant industry might feel the same frustrations.
“It’s easy to throw a party and raise some money and walk away and go back to your daily life. But this is an ongoing one. It will take a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money,” she said. “But we feel like this could be a model. There could be +TogetherPortland, or a +TogetherNewYork. We feel passionate about handing the torch to other cities.”
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout
UPDATE Nov. 2, 2018: This story was updated with the addition of founding partner Monica Dimas of Milkwood & Co.