Facing Uncertain Future, the Hospitality Industry Seeks Support

Chef preparing meals for charity at The Lee Initiative
Member of The Lee Initiative preparing meals for food service workers at the Louisville Relief Center / Photo by Josh Merideth

The economic effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak have progressed from initial shock to a grim new reality where hundreds of thousands in the U.S. have already filed for unemployment, with the number expected to quickly grow into the millions. With mandatory closings across the country to help slow the spread of the virus, the shift has impacted the food and drink service industry disproportionately hard.

As efforts in Washington have failed to fully address the immediate economic impact on workers, organizations and activists aim to keep businesses afloat and employees secure as they weather the long-term impact of the growing pandemic.

National Funds and Activist Networks

The Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (RWCF), a nonprofit advocacy group for the food service industry, has started a fund to assist those facing hardships.

“Imagine if people in the banking industry were treated the way restaurant workers are treated, in terms of no sick pay, no benefits, nothing,” said John deBary, RWCF’s founder and board president. “People would be up in arms.”

The RWCF has pledged 50% of donated funds to be used as direct relief for individual workers, with 25% going to nonprofits serving the industry and the remaining 25% used for zero-interest loans to support small businesses.

The United States’ Bartenders Guild’s (USBG) National Charity Foundation is accepting donations as well as applications from individual bar workers in need of emergency relief. Eligibility for USBG assistance grants is open to all affected bar workers and not dependent on USBG membership.

The nonprofit James Beard Foundation has launched its own Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund. The foundation is courting corporate support within the industry and seeks to provide micro-grants to individuals and businesses in need. Beverage giants S. Pellegrino and The Patrón Spirits Company joined in launching the effort, jumpstarting the fund with a combined $1,425,000 in donations.

Bobby Stuckey, owner/master sommelier of Frasca Food and Wine Group in Boulder, Colorado, has joined with chefs and organizations including Food Policy Action and the James Beard Foundation to help form the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC). The group is advocating for a six month income replacement program for affected restaurant workers, as well as federal grants to protect the existing supply chain.

“The bills from 45 days ago are paid with revenue earned today,” the IRC said in a statement. “If there is no revenue, those bills go unpaid.”

The National Restaurant Association, meanwhile, is urging the public to reach out to congressional representatives and demand they support the group’s restaurant recovery plan. Representing more than 500,000 restaurants nationwide, the business association, founded in 1919, is asking Congress and the White House to support relief, loans and disaster insurance directly targeting the food service industry.

Ashtin Berry is the creative director/cofounder of Radical Xchange, an activist collective that works to create equity for people with marginalized identities in the hospitality industry. She has partnered with Robin Nance, national brand ambassador with Beam Suntory, to launch America’s Table.


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Based off a memorandum from Representative Maxine Waters, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee, America’s Table has organized a three-point plan of action to address the ongoing issues in the hospitality community. Its initial goal is to collect enough signatures to petition the government to provide targeted legislative relief for the food service industry. Additional initiatives include a data collection campaign to better grasp the full economic effect the coronavirus continues to have on the sector, as well as explore future avenues for sustained support after bars and restaurants reopen.

Regional efforts

While many municipalities affected by the virus have permitted shuttered restaurants to pivot to takeaway or delivery-only models, bars that don’t offer food have limited means to generate revenue during the closures. New York City has permitted restaurants sell to-go alcoholic beverages, however, under the new guidelines by the State Liquor Authority, alcohol may only be sold in conjunction with food. This leaves bars without kitchens with little recourse to keep operations running and workers employed.

In Atlanta, the #ATLFamilymeal campaign provides aid and establishes a much-needed line of communication between the city’s furloughed bar and food service employees. A Facebook group allows community members to share resources, inform affected workers of restaurants and spaces offering free meals, and direct restauranteurs to organizations where their excess food and supplies can be donated.

“With the hospitality industry facing its most challenging time to date, we recognized a serious need for a streamlined communication tool that can unify our expansive restaurant network,” says Michael Lennox, CEO/founder of Electric Hospitality, the group spearheading the initiative.


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#ATLFamilymeal aims for funds and supplies to be dispersed through area nonprofits like the Giving Kitchen, Atlanta Community Food Bank, No Kid Hungry and Meals on Wheels Atlanta.

“The goal…is not only to communicate and build bridges both inside and outside the restaurant network, but also to leverage existing resources that may currently be underutilized,” says Lennox.

Chef Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek, co-founders of The Lee Initiative, a labor advocacy, training and empowerment program based in Louisville, Kentucky, have partnered with Maker’s Mark to launch The Restaurant Workers Relief Program. Operating in Louisville, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Cincinnati and New York City, the group says donations from each city will be distributed to area restaurants to provide nutritional assistance to out-of-work employees.

Lee has also converted his popular Louisville restaurant, 610 Magnolia, into a relief center for out-of-work hospitality employees, offering meals, aid and supplies ranging from diapers to non-perishable goods.

The Lee Initiative distributing meals at the Louisville Relief Center / Photo by Josh Merideth
The Lee Initiative distributing meals at the Louisville Relief Center / Photo by Josh Merideth

Protecting undocumented workers

In Brooklyn, New York, Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, is contributing to efforts to help undocumented workers, a particularly vulnerable segment during the ongoing crisis. She is personally working with community advocacy group RAISE NYC (Revolutionizing Asian-American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast) to raise money for Undocu Workers Fund, an initiative to distribute financial assistance to restaurant workers in Brooklyn and Manhattan who are unable to apply for unemployment benefits due to their legal status.

Her company is donating 5% of total online sales to the staffs, both documented and undocumented, of shuttered restaurant and café partners.

“As an individual, and first-generation born here, my community includes immigrants, refugees, documented and undocumented folks, and people vulnerable to deportation,” says Nguyen. “At this moment, we’ve raised $9,500 for the Undocu Workers Fund…while this sounds like a lot of money, in reality, it’s barely a drop in the bucket once we disburse. We’ll get to support about 63 individuals with mini-grants.”


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She encourages others to create their own movements as well. “Folks have asked about how people in Los Angeles or Boston can access the fund,” she says. “I share [our] flyer with them to encourage them to rally their direct networks and create similar micro efforts.”

Helping to meet demand

In addition to community support, an increasing number of distilleries have pivoted to using their stills to produce hand sanitizer and ethanol for sanitization purposes. These producers include, but are not limited to: Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier, VT; Bev, Los Angeles; J. Rieger & Co., Kansas City, MO; Cardinal Spirits, Bloomington, IN; Destilería Serrallés, Ponce, Puerto Rico; St. Augustine Distillery, St. Augustine, FL; and Desert Door Distillery, Driftwood, TX.

Additionally, Pernod Ricard USA is helping to meet demand by producing sanitizer at a number of their manufacturing sites, including facilities in Fort Smith, Arkansas, as well as at Smooth Ambler Spirits, Lewisburg, WV; Rabbit Hole Distillery, Louisville, KY; and TX Whiskey Distillery, Ft. Worth, TX.

Published on March 24, 2020
Topics: Latest News