Organized service workers say establishing a Labor Standards Board in Minneapolis to advise on workplace regulations would boost the city's economic recovery from COVID. But a coalition of local restaurateurs, including James Beard winners Gavin Kaysen, Ann Kim, Christina Nguyen and Sean Sherman, insist it will do just the opposite.

About 120 restaurant owners — one-third them people of color — have sent the Minneapolis City Council letters of opposition, saying the board would "add complicated layers to doing business," "stifle innovation and flexibility" and ultimately shut them down.

Speaking Tuesday at a news conference organized by Minneapolis Restaurant Coalition, chef David Fhima said he and others fear that new regulations will substantially affect the cost of labor. "There is not a single person that you see behind me or in our industry who does not [care] about their staff, because we understand better than anybody else that without our staff, we're nothing," he said. "We do care, and we have our own measures in place to take care of our staff."

The Labor Standards Board idea was proposed by organized labor groups including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Restaurant Opportunities Center of Minnesota. It has the backing of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council President Elliott Payne, who joined downtown workers at a January news conference to advocate for an advisory panel of business owners and workers that would recommend new policies and ideally improve working conditions — without being overly burdensome to small-business owners.

"We need to be rejuvenating downtown, bringing back both businesses and people," Frey said at the time. "We're leveraging a better outcome by not just creating policy from the council dais, not just having one individual mayor or council member bring an idea forward that hasn't been fully vetted by both businesses and labor, but to do it together."

Draft language for the proposal has not yet been shared publicly, nor have any specific regulations been floated. However, SEIU has called for increasing wages to keep pace with inflation, and for more full-time work that qualifies employees for health care benefits.

Minneapolis restaurant owners say they're already complying with a thicket of state and local regulations, and oppose any new ones.

Pedro Wolcott of Guacaya Bistreaux said if the Labor Standards Board comes up with regulations that increase his overhead, he may have to cut staff and have customers use QR codes for ordering. Gustavo Romero of restaurants Oro and Nixta said the city's priority should be helping restaurants stay open so there are jobs available.

"My restaurants in Minneapolis currently employ over 60 people, and my commitment to them and our community is unwavering," said Jorge Guzman of Chilango. "The idea of being regulated by individuals who may not understand the intricacies of running a restaurant is deeply troubling."

Hospitality Minnesota CEO Angie Whitcomb said business owners standing up to express their concerns about the Labor Standards Board would be willing to participate if necessary, but are apprehensive about how authentically their voices would be considered. "Conversations aren't happening," she said.

Mayor's office spokesperson Ally Peters said Frey has met repeatedly with restaurateurs, Hospitality Minnesota and unions, and has been crafting his Labor Standards Board proposal in collaboration with them. Peters said the restaurateurs' concerns "were specifically towards City Council in their proposal, and not in relation to the mayor's."

Neither proposal has been made publicly available. At the Tuesday event, the restaurant owners directed comments to the council, but a representative of the group said it opposes the core ideas behind any proposal.

Peters said the mayor would present his ideas after the council releases its own.

Payne said council members worked with Hospitality Minnesota to host a listening session with business owners, where there was "a lot of robust discussion."

"Some of the signers are constituents of mine," Payne said. "I've met with them one on one and we've talked through it . . . actually reaching out to some of them again, to follow up with them. There has been an active conversation with a lot of the folks that have been really engaged."

Chelsea Thompson a representative of a campaign to reject the Labor Standards Board organized by national restaurant groups but led locally by Hospitality Minnesota, clarified that the restaurateurs in their coalition oppose any attempt to create a Labor Standards Board that would lead to further regulation of their businesses. While the organization has seen iterations of the mayor's proposal, members seen no drafts of the council's proposal. Thompson said that at the group's last listening session with council members in April, they were told the Labor Standards Board ordinance would be presented this month.