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Restaurateurs see blue over political climate, to host fundraiser to back Democrats

The Blue Plate Special, to be held the night of Sept. 17 at the Franklin Institute, got a buy-in from about 40 food and beverage professionals.

Organizers of the Blue Plate Special, at the Franklin Institute, include (from left) Rick Nichols, Steve Poses, Larry Stenner, and Royer Smith.
Organizers of the Blue Plate Special, at the Franklin Institute, include (from left) Rick Nichols, Steve Poses, Larry Stenner, and Royer Smith.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

Not long after Nov. 9, 2016, caterer Steve Poses said he decided: "I have to stop yelling at my TV and do something."

Poses, 71, who helped revolutionize fine but casual dining in the 1970s Philadelphia restaurant renaissance with such spots as Frog and the Commissary, said he felt despair over the election of Donald Trump as president and at Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes going to a Republican. "I'm a child of the '60s, and this was not the legacy I wanted to leave my son," Poses said. (Twist: Noah Poses is chef de cuisine at the Watergate Hotel in Washington.)

Poses turned to his friends to take a shot at turning Pennsylvania blue again. He and lawyer Steve Springer, a fellow Barack Obama volunteer from 2008, came up with the PA Blue Victory Fund, whose aim is to help local Democratic candidates in forthcoming elections — not just the 2020 presidential election. Poses said his family kicked in $100,000 and he and others added $50,000 more to seed it.

For its first fund-raiser, the Steves approached the restaurant and food community to create an event called the Blue Plate Special, to be held the night of Sept. 17 at the Franklin Institute, where Poses' catering company, Frog Commissary, is based. Tickets start at $25 for students and at $50 for those on a limited income.

Poses calls Blue Plate equal parts political pep rally and "friend-raiser." Former Gov. Ed Rendell will be honorary executive chef, and the cast of supporters — many recruited by former Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols — includes Ellen Yin (Fork), Scott Schroeder (Hungry Pigeon), Sam Mink (Oyster House), Aimee Olexy (Talula's Garden), Sam Kincaid (Cadence), Stephanie Reitano (Capogiro), Christopher Curtin (Éclat Chocolate), Joncarl Lachman (Noord), Luca Sena (Panorama), Andy Satinsky (Weckerly's Ice Cream), and Heather Thomason (Primal Supply Meats). Beverages will be provided by Philadelphia Distilling (Bluecoat Gin) and La Colombe, among others.

Did you think you were going to get such support from the food community?

These are unusual times, and so typically you might expect people with business and customers to be a little reticent about standing up in this way, so it's kind of encouraging that people really jumped at the opportunity to do it. Both Ellen Yin and Aimee Olexy were very early enthusiastic ins. You kind of use, 'Hey, Aimee's in, and Ellen's in,' and it really helps you with other people. They sort of provide the cover. Ultimately, our goal was really not to have entirely kind of a Feastival lineup, but really a lineup that included a broad section including kind of more ethnic places.

How is the PA Blue Victory Fund different?

It's totally focused on Southeastern Pennsylvania. And the other thing that makes it unique is that it's a three-election cycle, because mostly what happens around elections is that you just focus on the election. When the election's over, the winner takes the seat of honor, the loser licks his wounds, and everyone else goes home. We can't do that. We can't be in 2020 reinventing the wheel. We need to build on what's happening. As for the event, the idea was always to make it kind of fun and light, and so there will be this short sort of 15-minute rally that has kind of a dramatic ending to it that's going to be a reveal and then a dance party.

What is unusual is the political nature of it, I guess, is what makes it distinctive and unusual. The Franklin Institute was a logical place to have it, because that's been sort of my company home for about 40 years, although we're paying as any other outside operator would pay. The political operation can't take any corporate donations, so ultimately the people who are contributing will contribute as individuals, not as their companies, and that's just the compliance law that we have to work with.

Where does the money go?

We have a very, very smart advisory committee that helps guide the donations. The first piece, which is the largest piece, goes toward candidates. The second, which is a terrifically overlooked way that people spend their money, is that there are these grassroots organizations. Turn PA Blue is actually the most significant. This was started in a living room in Rittenhouse Square for me when I met a woman named Jamie Perrapato, who runs Turn PA Blue. She was just fabulous, dynamic. She quit her job as a lawyer. She was starting this up herself. And she didn't have two nickels to rub together. And so it occurred to me right there, she doesn't have two nickels to rub together, because she's not designed to be fund-raising. So this was designed as a vehicle to raise funds for the grassroots organizations — that's our second major piece.

This is overtly political and we live in sensitive times. Are you prepared for pushback?

Absolutely, and I also don't expect it. I think that, overwhelmingly, the citizens of Philadelphia are blue, not red. And so, I think, overwhelmingly, these people actually see it as a service to the constituency of customers that they serve. And I guess there were a couple people who said, 'Gee, I don't want to take a chance of offending anyone.' But I think people feel … I come back to saying I got tired of yelling at my TV, and I think these people who are participating got tired of yelling at their TV, and it was a way they could do something.

It remains to be seen, but I think, if anything, that we will be applauded, not anything else. The response that we have generally got is, 'This is fabulous, this is terrific, it's a great organizing tool.' But who knows. And in the end, all these people are citizens, right? They have a right to express their citizenship.