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The Power List
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Erika Polmar, COO, Independent Restaurant Coalition

Independent Restaurant Coalition works to build a more equitable food system

COO Erika Polmar shares how the group supports operators. Meet the innovative, inclusive and industry changing leaders of the 2021 NRN Power List.

Erika Polmar, chief operating officer of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, was chosen for the NRN Power List by IRC co-founder Tom Colicchio for how she mobilizes the group’s members and “reminds us what we are fighting for and what’s at stake.” Here’s what else Colicchio had to say:

The entire IRC should be singled out — there are hundreds of people swinging for the fences every single day. It’s leaders like Erika Polmar that are making it happen.  I’d like to dedicate this recognition to Erika and the herculean effort that she and everyone in the Coalition have given.  I don’t think most people know the extent of what the IRC does and I want our industry to know who is working tirelessly for them, all day every day.

Erika has gained the respect of every single person on [IRC] calls and does it in way that brings a little bit of joy to the meetings. She reminds us what we are fighting for and what’s at stake.  And she manages to do it in a way that we feel hopeful, fed and know that despite the one step forward, two steps back nature of advocacy, we are making gains. She wields a soft power that is incredibly impactful.

Nation’s Restaurant News talked with Erika Polmar about how her organization works to give voice to the concerns of independent operators and educate legislators about their needs. Here’s what she had to say:

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during this chaotic year? 

When the consequences of your actions impact millions, who is leading is far less important than providing focus, motivation, belligerent optimism and resources to your team so they have the courage and the tools to accomplish their goals.

Representative democracy requires that citizens use their voice beyond the ballot box. One of the silver linings in moments of crisis is our collective propensity to form community, and in the case of the IRC, that’s meant unifying our voices to educate our representatives about how independent restaurants and bars operate, contribute to the cultural fabric of our country and our economy. Chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders and owners have always been the first to step up to help others, from charities to the local little league. This year, they’ve shifted their focus to fight for an industry they love and the 16 million people it employs

Their persistence and resilience is an inspiration.

erika-polmar.jpgWhat are you most proud of in terms of company leadership and community impact as you look back at the challenges of 2020? 

The members of the Coalition have had so many opportunities to reflect on the heartbreak, the hardships, the re-building, and the endless re-inventing. At any one of those moments, they could have decided that enough was enough.  Instead, they faced the darkest hours, together. They held fast to their commitment to change the most lives possible. This group has the remarkable ability to look beyond their door and inspire others to take action and make bold changes that will serve this industry and our society for the better.  

In the words of Bobby Stuckey, “hospitality is a secret weapon.” That’s never been more evident to me than when working with the Coalition. The grace with which new members were welcomed into this group, coached by peers to navigate spaces that were daunting and willing to tackle every challenge head on, has been remarkable. 


What’s something you’re looking forward to in your job or in the restaurant industry in 2021? 

What started as a phone call between a few chefs and restaurateurs sharing their anxiety due to the pandemic became a national advocacy group for independent restaurants across America. I am looking forward to passing the RESTAURANTS Act and working with the Coalition to identify additional legislative action to support the long-term recovery of the restaurant industry.

The pandemic has ripped apart our industry and our communities at the seams. It is my hope that in 2021, the Coalition continues to grow and diversify with new members from across the country and that we will create the tools to start rebuilding foodservice and food systems in a more equitable, just and delicious way.

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