I once knocked on the back door of a cheesemonger in Brooklyn and waited outside for a lump of hard-to-find, extremely expensive, unmarked butter produced by Diane St. Clair at her tiny creamery in Orwell, Vt.
It was delicious — sunshine-yellow and sweet — but the last thing I expected was that President Trump would discuss it in a meeting at the White House. On Monday, he did just that.
At the gathering, fast-food executives and owners of fine-dining restaurants sat down with the president, Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials to discuss plans for reopening and the government’s relief programs for the industry.
But as restaurateurs tried to steer the conversation toward topics like Paycheck Protection Program loans, extending the window for spending relief money, public health and economic uncertainty, Mr. Trump repeatedly went off course.
He claimed he’d already “saved” the restaurant business, and at one point asked the chef Thomas Keller about his favorite butter:
THE PRESIDENT: What’s the difference in butter? Tell me. The difference in butter between what she sells you and what you would normally be able to buy. Out of curio- — I don’t want to —
MR. KELLER: It’s — it is extraordinary because it is — it is truly a seasonal product, so the butter changes flavor and color depending on the season. So in the early —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: There’s no comparison.
MR. KELLER: — in the spring, when they’re eating green, when they’re grazing on grass — green grass — the butter is —
THE PRESIDENT: That’s fantastic.
MR. KELLER: — a beautiful orange hue. And, of course, in the summertime, it turns lighter because they’re eating hay. So — and the flavors taste —
THE PRESIDENT: Mike just said there is no comparison. He knows. (Laughter.)
MR. KELLER: There’s a —
THE PRESIDENT: He knows. (Inaudible) from Indiana. He knows.
MR. KELLER: There’s a tremendous — a tremendous difference in the butter from —
THE PRESIDENT: No kidding. So, that’s good.
MR. KELLER: Oh, yeah. It’s extraordinary.
For those watching the remarks, or reading the transcript published by the White House, it often seemed like a few men — and all 10 of the restaurant representatives at the table were men — tipsily chatting over their picket fences on a summer afternoon.
It did not seem like a conversation happening in the workplace of the president of the United States in the middle of a global pandemic. It did not seem as if many thousands of Americans had died, and millions were out of work, or as if one of the nation’s most important economic engines — the hospitality industry — was in a tailspin.
Days later, I’m still bewildered. Mr. Trump’s response didn’t just minimize the most urgent concerns of millions of people, it tried to joke them away.
I’d expected little from the discussion. Small-restaurant owners and workers — among them the women, immigrants and undocumented people who work behind the scenes — weren’t represented at the table.
Mr. Keller brought up diversity within the industry in a roundabout way, saying: “We don’t really care about your education. We’re not concerned about where you come from, your religious beliefs. We are open to everybody.”
But this didn’t ring true. Restaurants may hire people of color, immigrants, undocumented people and Indigenous people, but they are generally relegated to low-paying kitchen jobs. And many of those workers struggle to secure benefits and move up in a system that depends on their cheap labor.
The pandemic has only made the disparities within restaurants more obvious, and the need for changes more urgent.
The meeting sputtered and went off on tangents — like the one about the butter — devolving again and again into empty superlatives and the smallest of small talk. Mr. Trump made several sweeping promises of “coming back stronger,” but shared no vision of how to accomplish that.
By the end of the roughly 100-minute meeting, it was painfully apparent that there was no plan, no strategy, no blueprint in the works for the restaurant industry. It was up to restaurants to figure it all out for themselves.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released its guidelines for the reopening of restaurants, after the White House shelved an earlier draft. Among other straightforward suggestions, the C.D.C. mentions masks, recommending that all restaurants reopening “require the use of cloth face coverings among all staff.”
This seems like a simple directive, but because the federal government and many states have failed to issue clear, consistent rules, restaurants are largely left to make up their own. Many are not allowing staff to wear masks, or making that protection optional. For now, it’s unclear how severe the consequences will be.
Mr. Keller brought up that butter, made in a small creamery with just a few cows, to try to illustrate the symbiotic relationship between restaurants and farms. It was an esoteric example, sure, but it made a crucial point: Restaurants are inextricably connected to fisheries, farms, florists and hundreds of other kinds of small businesses across the country.
Shuttered restaurants create an extended national network of suffering — unemployment, missed rent payments, lapsed health insurance.
A thoughtful, coordinated, government-led initiative to protect restaurant workers, owners and diners, and control the spread of the coronavirus as businesses reopen, is essential. And it’s already disturbingly late.
What happens next affects millions of lives, but as the conversation wound down, the president seemed to turn from the story about the desperation of the restaurant business and its critical needs, and focus on another.
“Beautiful story,” he said, “with a woman with the eight cows.”