Peter Schechter—a former Washington lobbyist, political consultant and expert on Latin America—has opened the city’s first restaurant chain that combines immigrant advocacy with a new concept in dining.
“My parents were both Jewish war immigrants to the United States,” says Schechter, co-owner of Immigrant Food. “And nobody ever said to my father, even though he had this amazing accent until the day he died, to go back to where he came from, which was Austria.”
By way of a little background, Schechter’s dad, Edmund, began working with the US Information Agency during World War II. He died in 1998, but the family’s life abroad deeply shaped Schechter’s outlook on life, and in particular, geopolitics. He came to the United States for the first time at 16, and later spent a decade in Bolivia and Venezuela before ultimately settling in Washington.
For Schechter, 62, the issue of immigration is intensely personal. In his opinion, the national debate over US immigration policy has deteriorated so much in recent years that the country has become “almost unrecognizable.”
So, with co-owners Enrique Limardo—a Venezuelan star chef who recently won a Michelin star for his work at Imperfecto—and Belgian CEO Téa Ivanovic, the entrepreneur assembled a team of first- and second-generation immigrants to build a groundbreaking social enterprise. Now, more than two years in—despite the pandemic, labor shortages, turbulent political protests and even barricades around the nation’s capital—Immigrant Food is turning a profit.
The chain now boasts three locations. The newest: Immigrant Food Plus. Located at the Planet Word Museum, it’s an upscale casual restaurant with an evening menu, top-shelf cocktails and table service. The other locations—one block from the White House and at Union Market— offer a more relaxed fare with international bowls, sandwiches and salads.
When Limardo and fellow Venezuelan chef Mile Montezuma first set out to design a bold, new menu, they mapped out a “spider web” of ingredients shared among various nations.
“The difference between our menu and other restaurants is that we mix a lot of different cultures,” Montezuma said. “For example, we have one bowl that has been with us since the beginning: the Mumbai Mariachi, that is Mexican and Indian.”
At Immigrant Food, “gastro advocacy” builds on the concept of feeding busy people information in bites (both figuratively and literally) and relies on the notion that the dining table is a safe place to hammer out daunting issues.
“One of the things that really attracted me about doing this thing through a restaurant was that we could take the conversation sophistication down a few notches, and talk to people in ways that are normal, and not highly imbued with super expertise-oriented language,” said Schechter, who among other things has worked as a political adviser in nearly every country in Latin America. He also helped establish the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in 2013.
“We wanted to make it very easy for people to engage,” she said. “You have a food menu, of course, but you also have a drinks menu, and then you have what we call an ‘engagement’ menu.” Each week, the team introduces five ways to learn about immigration issues. “So, whether it’s making a simple donation or joining a march, or signing a petition, or even just watching a movie or reading a book, it’s all on there, and it changes every Sunday.”
Immigrant Food’s advocacy isn’t all talk. Not only does the business itself reflect diversity and inclusiveness, its co-owners work with five several advocacy groups like the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Ayuda (Spanish for “help”).
For nearly 50 years, Ayuda has provided legal, social and language services to low-income immigrants in the DC area.
“Immigrant Food has helped elevate the voice of Ayuda, our work and impact, and most importantly, our clients’ stories,” says Laura Trask, the organization’s director of development and communications, adding that the eatery’s mission “has helped unite people at the table, celebrate America’s history and educate the community on pressing issues facing immigrants in the United States.”
Ayuda took advantage of the restaurant’s free designated space for NGOs until the pandemic upended their event calendar. This spring, the charity will present its first “Advocate of Change Award” to Limardo, Ivanovic and Schechter.
But outside of Washington, would a restaurant with such a focused political mission survive? Schechter believes the timing is right, and for that reason, he wants to expand Immigrant Food.
“We see ourselves as a company that hopefully in 10 years will have 30 to 40 Immigrant Foods across big cities, all across the United States,” he said, rattling off possibilities like Philadelphia, Atlanta and Seattle. He also thinks the model could thrive in other countries.
“If you look at some of the issues that we’re now seeing in Europe, the immigration debate has, to a large extent, become polarized and divisive, as the immigration debate has here. I think there’s ample room in Paris or London or Milan to have an Immigrant Food-type restaurant,” he says, pointing to heightened interest in South America, where some six million Venezuelans have fled the Maduro regime.
Meanwhile, outside the White House, just steps from Immigrant Food’s first location, buses full of immigrants recently picked up at the southern border have started arriving.
“We are a long way away from the day in which immigration will no longer be an issue here in the United States,” said Schechter, who blames a small minority of politicians for continuing to use immigrants as scapegoats. “And so, this is just going to be an ongoing, continual fight that we have, unfortunately, for many years to come.”