Attorney Sean R. Weissbart Talks to BWW About Foundations Supporting Restaurants and Staffs

Broadway World Food & Wine

Sean R. Weissbart is a partner at the law firm of Blank Rome LLP in New York City where he concentrates his legal work in the areas of trusts and estates law and tax-exempt organizations. In addition to his practice, he serves boards of various philanthropic organizations, including as general counsel for the Ment'or BKB Foundation, an organization that sponsors the American team at the Bocuse d'Or (a biannual culinary competition in France), and as chair of the "NextGen" Trusts and Estates Committee of the UJA Federation of New York. Sean has been recognized from 2015 to the present as a "Rising Star" in Estate Planning and Tax-Exempt Organizations, listed by Super Lawyers. In 2010, he received the "Justice award for Outstanding Contributions to Pro Bono Legal Services in New York City, awarded by MFY Legal Services. A life-long New Yorker, Sean resides in the city with his wife, Skye. (BWW) interviewed Sean R. Weissbart about some of the current initiatives that are being applied to assist the food service and restaurant community during these trying times for the industry.

What elements in your personal and legal background led you to work with individuals and groups in the restaurant industry?

As a life-long food lover, I was thrilled to have first been given the opportunity seven years ago to provide legal services to the Ment'or BKB Foundation, one of our nation's premier charities focused on culinary arts. My legal practice focuses on representing 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations so I was able to use these skills to help the charity navigate through all of the state and federal requirements imposed on nonprofits. In 2015, I was asked to become an officer of Ment'or's board of directors.

Tell us a little about the Ment'or BKB Foundation and the work you have done for them in the past?

Ment'or sponsors the United States team in a culinary competition called Bocuse d'Or, which is considered the Olympics of the culinary world, and also raises money to give grants to aspiring young chefs to enable them to have unique culinary internships throughout the world for the purpose of enhancing the culinary arts in America. The legal work runs the gamut from reviewing our sponsorship agreements (we are fortunate to have some wonderful corporate sponsorships), making sure the charity is registered to fundraise throughout the country, and complying with strict IRS rules for our grant program.

I understand that the Foundation has shifted focus to aide displaced restaurant staff during the Covid-19 outbreak. We'd like to know more about this initiative.

The Foundations board of directors and officers, which consists of major culinary names, including Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Jerome Bocuse, and Gavin Kaysen, are all working hard on developing a fund that the Foundation will be able to use to make grants to support the culinary community and the individuals whose jobs have been lost due to the massive impact that COVID-19 has had on the restaurant community's workforce.

We know that Union Square Hospitality is working closely with you. What outcomes can be better achieved by working with this renowned hospitality group?

Union Square Hospitality Group has set up a nonprofit called HUGS for US, Inc., which is raising money to make grants to its employees and former employees who have been financially impacted by COVID-19. In addition to Union Square Hospitality Group, I have created similar nonprofits for restaurant groups started by Thomas Keller, Gavin Kaysen, among others. These "employer-sponsored charities" will raise money on a tax-deductible basis to donors and distribute out these funds to their workforce for items such as healthcare expenses, childcare and schooling for their family members, and basic living expenses, which is so critical and necessary at this time as so many restaurant workers have been furloughed while restaurants are required to close their doors due to government orders.

Who are some of the individuals you are working directly with and what are their objectives?

I mentioned above the work we are doing for Union Square Hospitality Group, Thomas Keller, and Gavin Kaysen, but I am speaking with a number of chefs across the country who are looking to do similar things for their workforce. There is a huge desire to help the culinary workforce, which is so important given the devastating financial impact COVID-19 has had on this community. Ment'or is also tremendously involved, and we have a culinary council of leading chefs across the country. We are working with our entire network to fundraise to provide this critical assistance to the broader culinary community.

In these trying times, what is your hope for the restaurant industry in the near future?

I hope all restaurants will be able to reach out to their networks of patrons and vendors to support their communities. I have seen a number of "GoFundMe" pages set up, and while these are wonderful, without creating a charity to distribute the funds, contributors to a GoFundMe page will not be able to receive a charitable income tax deduction. By creating the charity, restaurant groups may be able to increase their fundraising and give more to the workforce that was so critical to their success. I also hope the Internal Revenue Service will act quickly to grant to tax-exemption applications submitted by all of these industry nonprofits so we are quickly recognized as 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. The IRS can sometimes take up to six months to approve 501(c)(3) applications but expedited approval should be available in these situations. Fingers crossed!

We all know that the Covid-19 Pandemic will pass but will have an impact on our lifestyle choices. How do you think the industry will adapt?

When restaurants reopen their doors, I think the public will generally be excited to return to experience the great hospitality that our nation's restaurants provide. Like many others, my family and I have been trying to support our favorite restaurants by purchasing gift cards for future use, so I think there will be a lot of people ready to make reservations to redeem these gift cards. Restaurants are already held to a very high standard for sanitation and cleanliness but I believe we will see these efforts publicized to make all diners comfortable when doors reopen. In the interim, I hope everyone supports the industry by ordering delivery, buying gift cards for future use (many restaurants are donating some or all of these proceeds to charities for their workforce), and if they have the means, contributing to charities created to support restaurant workers who have lost their jobs.

Please share any comments or information that you'd like our readers to have.

When people think of the Tax Code, charitable giving is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but in today's times, it's important to know that if you follow the tax rules, you can create or give to a charity and be eligible for a tax deduction that can be valuable to you while helping the restaurant community's workforce. That's a win-win to keep in mind at these trying times that we all hope will pass soon.

Anything else, absolutely anything you want BWW Food and Wine Readers to know!

My favorite drink is a dark anejo tequila on the rocks with some fresh squeezed lime. I hope to see everyone back at the restaurants with their favorite drink in hand soon!

“Attorney Sean R. Weissbart Talks to BWW About Foundations Supporting Restaurants and Staffs,” by Marina Kennedy was published on March 23, 2020 in Broadway World Food & Wine. Reprinted with permission.

Sean Weissbart BWW
Chef Thomas Keller (left), Blank Rome Partner Sean Weissbart (right), and Sean's wife, Skye (center)