Davis Wright Tremaine partner Riley Lagesen said the long-term economic impacts of the coronavirus first struck him March 6, when he went to the main restaurant inside the Marriott Renaissance in downtown Seattle for dinner, and found he was the only customer.
Lagesen, chair of Davis Wright Tremaine’s national restaurant industry practice group, a week later texted his longtime client Guy Fieri—the celebrity chef and restaurateur perhaps best known for his Food Network program “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” He told Fieri, “This is crushing lots of great restaurateurs.” He added, “It’s gonna take a team effort get through a recover[y]. I think you’re the one to lead the charge.”
“I am 100% down,” Fieri responded. The pair made plans to talk the next day.
A fund was desperately needed, they decided, to aid what one restaurant industry group estimates are the five to seven million restaurant workers that could be displaced by stay at home orders and other government responses to the virus.
Lagesen initiated more discussions with Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association, and with the National Restaurant Association and its educational foundation. Soon after, they found sponsors, including PepsiCo, Uber Eats, and many others willing to chip in— and the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund took shape.
“We said, listen, let’s put something together that’s going to focus on the employees and how we can get them some money,” Fieri told Willie Geist on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Friday. “It was quick action. My attorney Riley [Lagesen] from Davis Wright Tremaine, he was the one that was right in the middle of it, getting everybody organized.”
The relief fund has raised more than $10 million, with a goal of ten times that, Fieri said. The fund’s website has been accessed so many times so quickly—with more then 4 million hits in its first morning—that it initially buckled under all that activity.
Lagesen is well-placed to coordinate the effort. From Portland, Ore., he leads what he says is the biggest restaurant industry practice group nationally, comprised of 70 Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys.
Lagesen said he began to find his calling after graduating from USC in 1993, with a screenwriting degree but few film industry prospects. Instead, he landed a job clearing tables at Baja Sharkeez, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif., south of Los Angeles. His experiences there, and lessons he learned about teamwork, taught him more about life, he said, than all his schooling combined.
After five years working every job the restaurant had, from bus boy to bartender, and another two trying to build his own restaurant brand, Lagesen decided on law school. He promised himself that after graduating, he’d find a way to work for the restaurant industry.
He’s represented Fieri and his corporate entity, Knuckle Sandwich, since 2010. His client is the “real deal,” he said—using well-popularized, Fierian lingo. He said that as the owner or co-owner of more than 100 restaurants, Fieri has been the ideal chef-celebrity to set up this kind of relief effort.
“He exudes the spirit of the American restaurateur,” said Lagesen of Fieri. “He connects with everyone in the business. That is at his core.”