The Dish: Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of 10 Initiative

by Anna Poulson

Erik Bruner-Yang at Maketto. Photo courtesy of Power of 10.

From Washington’s most sought-after ramen, to a minimalist cafe marketplace, to a menu that explores the intersectionality between Italian and Asian cuisine, chef Erik Bruner-Yang has mastered it all. As the brains behind five distinct local restaurants, he has shone bright in the District’s dining scene and nationally as a celebrity chef through his James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year nomination in 2015 and becoming a semi-finalist in the James Beard Best Chefs in America category in 2016 and 2019.

When COVID-19 unleashed chaos on the restaurant industry, Bruner-Yang stepped up to the plate (pun intended) to support service workers and communities across the country. As the implications of the virus picked up pace in March, the chef and entrepreneur immediately recognized the impact stay at home orders, shuttered eateries and mass job insecurity would have on the industry. Understanding the importance of local restaurants as “anchors of every great community in America,” Bruner-Yang took action by launching the Power of 10 Initiative.

Simple Math. Photo courtesy of @powerof10initiative on Instagram.

The name comes from simple math, according to the chef: “If a restaurant were to receive $10,000 a week during this crisis, it could create 10 full-time jobs and provide 1,000 free meals to its direct community.” Using this strategy, the Power of 10 Initiative aims to re-employ laid off workers, raise funds for restaurants and provide meals to community members and frontline workers. What began as a donation-based program at three restaurants is now a national endeavor that has mobilized 30 independent operations and served more than 175,000 meals. The concept has received an overwhelming amount of support including a key partnership with Capital One. The banking giant jumped at the opportunity to support its community by getting restaurant employees back to work across the country and enabling greater food access.

We caught up with the restaurateur to learn more about the success of his concept, what he hopes government officials will recognize about the power of the restaurant industry, and how we can get involved.

Washington Life: From Washington to Los Angeles, you’ve helped restaurants provide relief for dozens of communities. As a chef and the founder of The Power of 10, what do you believe is the power of food?

Erik Bruner-Yang: Food has the ability to unite, nurture, and create community, but it can also be weaponized against people. All communities should have the right and access to grow, sell, and eat healthy food and through the Power of 10, the goal is to bring communities one step closer.

WL: Your initial goal was to mobilize three restaurants. You’ve now mobilized 30 and their communities. What does it mean to you to be able to have such a widespread impact on the industry?

Bruner-Yang: One of our sayings is that every neighborhood restaurant understands their direct community more than any one government or large organization. The more dollars you keep in your own community, the larger the scale of its impact. The quick impact of Power of 10 has been amazing. We have surpassed distributing 125,000 meals, which is an incredible landmark, but the economic difference is even more notable. Keeping people employed, helping small business owners save their businesses, and assuring farmers and vendors get paid help helps maintain the economic circle, while also servicing our community.

WL: The Power of 10 focuses on the team effort needed to support restaurants and communities. How has broadening your own team with olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu and Capital One helped you achieve the initiative’s goals?

Bruner-Yang: The Power of 10 is a program that is punching way above its reach. We connected with Mirai Nagasu through someone on Instagram and it was really great hearing her story about growing up in her family’s restaurant, Sushi Kiyosuzu, in California. She has been amazing at sharing her platform with us and helping tell our intertwined story. My mom is a huge Olympic figure skating fan, so when I told her about all of this she was really excited – probably more excited than many things I have done!

The support of Capital One has been immense and instrumental in our organization’s ability to help as many people as possible. With their contribution, we were able to make 50,000 meals nationwide and support hundreds of jobs. I am grateful for their partnership and friendship. It opened many doors for us in regards to other organizations wanting to help out Power of 10 but also, they really believed in the grassroots work we were doing in each individual market.

WL: The initiative’s goals are ambitious, yet very effective. What do you hope The Power of 10 will make people realize about the power and needs of the restaurant industry?

Bruner-Yang: The future of the restaurant industry has never been more perilous, however, restaurant owners are not the only ones in need of state and government support. The best outcome would be officials recognizing the restaurant industry as part of the solution moving forward. A program like The Power of 10 should be modeled nationwide to help restaurants stay in business, help farmers and vendors get paid, and allow people to receive food and stay home. It’s also designed to be a model that any restaurant owner can implement and replicate.  In doing so, this allows people to remain safe and healthy, while waiting for researchers to properly figure out how to reopen our economies.

WL: How will The Power of 10 pivot its strategies during phases of reopening to continue supporting restaurant employees and addressing community access to food?

Bruner-Yang: We are not going to pivot. The Power of 10 will continue to support restaurants and our community, becoming a part of our daily operation moving forward. Even as restaurants re-open, not all are equipped to do so. Our goal is to provide a safety net for those who are still dedicated to serving customers and their communities without putting their staff and others at risk.

WL: What response have you received from the Washington area in helping to build Power of 10? How should locals continue to engage with your mission and their communities?

DC Firefighters picking up Power of 10 meals at ABC Pony. Photo courtesy of Power of 10.

Bruner-Yang: I love DC and I am so grateful for everyone who has helped build The Power of 10. We have had more than 3,000 individual donations and amazing support from other institutions and foundations like Capital One, No Kid Hungry, Georgetown Pediatrics, The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, National Children’s Center, Samasama Art Collective, The Diane & Norman Bernstein Foundation, Netflix and The Lee Initiative, among many others. Lastly, Jonathan Tate and Ramon Looby from Food on the Stove have been very instrumental in our success as well.

Capital One is proud to support The Power of 10, an extraordinary initiative started in our hometown, and to help expand this innovative program to eight cities across the country. Restaurants play a vital role in unifying the communities we serve, and we were eager to do our part to help in this urgent and unprecedented time of need. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with Erik and The Power of 10 to support restaurants, bring restaurant workers back to work, and provide food access to those on the frontlines of our country’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.” – Andy Navarrete, Head of External Affairs, Capital One Financial

WL: How have other restaurant industry leaders supported The Power of 10?

Bruner-Yang: Edward Lee and The Lee Initiative provided us with our first grant, which really helped us get on the map. The people of Hook Hall and Arcadia Farms have also been super amazing. Lea Howe from DC Greens also helped immensely. Here is a list of all the DMV restaurants we’ve been fortunate enough to work with the last few months. To me, they are all leaders:

WL: Has organizing The Power of 10 brought you even closer to the Washington community? 

Bruner-Yang: It has been important to keep my community intact. In DC, a lot of the restaurants participating are in Ward 6. We have Cane, Thamee, Sospeso, Stable, Pie Shop, Uzu and DC Fishwife all making meals for The Power of 10. We’re looking to get Cusbah going soon, which is exciting.

WL: We’re all looking forward to the day we can return to the sleek community space you’ve created with your restaurant Maketto. What plans do you have in place to begin to reopen?

Bruner-Yang: We have started to rearrange and prepare for the Phase II reopening. We need to repaint and redo the floors as well as wait for new retail inventory to arrive. We sustained about $55,000 worth of damages and stolen inventory when we were burglarized over the summer, so we are just trying to get the place back visually right now. We are also partnering with my friend, Matthew Talley, who is going to open up a record shop on our second floor cafe space. (Maketto is currently open for takeout, but not in-person dining).

WL: What are you most looking forward to doing in DC as restrictions are slowly lifted?

Bruner-Yang: I am looking forward to taking my family back out to eat eventually. As a family, we also love staycations at local hotels and we really look forward to doing that again too. My favorite local staycation is at the Conrad Hotel, through their “Sakura Club.”

To learn more about Bruner-Yang’s initiative and discover how to donate, visit powerof10initiative.com

Follow along on the Power of 10’s journey via Instagram: @powerof10initiative @erikbruneryang

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