Nonprofits Launch Programs to Support Restaurant Workers as Coronavirus Decimates Industry

Organizations with crisis response experience are helping those affected by COVID-19

empty restaurant
The National Restaurant Association predicts a $225 billion hit to the industry over the next three months. Getty Images
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When New York City ordered bars and restaurants to close or solely offer takeout and delivery starting last Sunday, executive chef Diego Moya of Tribeca bistro Racines NY faced a tough decision. He and his team decided a to-go model wasn’t viable and posed potential health risks, so the restaurant has gone into “hibernation”—it’s closed indefinitely until the spread of COVID-19 in the city is contained.

“We’re hopeful this passes within a certain amount of time so we can reboot and start again,” Moya said. “But we don’t know how much time will elapse, or whether our business will stay afloat.”

The heartbreaking situation of Racines NY’s employees has become common across America, as many local governments have ordered restaurants and bars to reduce capacity by at least 50% or become to-go establishments. On Wednesday, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group let go 80% of its staff, and Northwest brewpub chain McMenamins laid off 3,000 people and closed nearly all of its locations. On the same day, the National Restaurant Association issued an open letter urging President Trump and congressional leaders to provide immediate relief, forecasting the industry will lose $225 billion and cut between 5 to 7 million jobs over the next three months.

While restaurant workers wait and hope for government assistance, nonprofits across the country in the food and beverage space are shifting their efforts to help those directly affected by the pandemic as immediately as they can. Many of them specialize in crisis relief but, until now, most of their efforts have been regional and focused on finite crises, like natural disasters. The coronavirus pandemic finds these organizations expanding their programs as much as possible, while potentially dealing directly with job losses for themselves, their friends and their loved ones.

Nonprofits are providing resources and direct financial assistance

The Giving Kitchen, a Georgia-based nonprofit, supports food service workers in crisis due to unexpected illnesses, housing disasters or deaths in the family through two programs: direct financial assistance and a referral program that connects workers to social services. In response to COVID-19, the organization is now bulking up its efforts through its website to help workers directly affected by the pandemic.

“We are working to become a resource for food service workers who don’t know where to turn,” said Bryan Schroeder, executive director of The Giving Kitchen. “We want to show them how to file for unemployment, how to get food and how to protect themselves if they’re still at work.”

The Giving Kitchen’s website offers community resources like links to the Georgia Restaurant Association and the CDC, and details the financial assistance application process for anyone who’s sick. Schroeder said those who apply are asked to include any form of doctor’s note (including Teladoc or any doctor’s assessment done virtually), as well as copies of their lease, utility bills or funeral expenses, depending on the type of assistance they require. Once an application is approved, the organization then writes checks to the appropriate outlets, such as a landlord or a mortgage company.

While The Giving Kitchen’s financial assistance efforts are focused on Georgia, Schroeder said they have every intention of eventually becoming a national organization. To start, the organization plans to partner with the QPR Institute—which provides suicide prevention training—to offer online training to any food service worker in the U.S., ideally to equip them with the tools to help coworkers who may be dealing with mental stress.

The Houston-based nonprofit Southern Smoke Foundation also has a year-round emergency relief fund to help food and beverage industry workers and suppliers in crisis. The organization, which itself was directly affected when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of its annual March fundraising event, is gearing up to help industry workers whose jobs and health have been affected by the virus. The organization accepts outside donations and is currently accepting financial assistance applications from restaurant owners and employees affected by COVID-19.

“We’re not reinventing a wheel or inventing anything,” said Kathryn Lott, executive director of Southern Smoke Foundation. “Our operations are solidly in place to react to this crisis in a nimble way.”

Lott said the fund offers online applications available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese upon request. Any worker across the country who’s been in the industry for at least six months can apply; applications are then vetted, with personal information redacted, and sent to a committee to determine what the financial amount will be.

She explained while the goal is to help as many people in need as they can, the organization does have to prioritize recipients based on their situation. To start, funds that were already raised this year, before the coronavirus outbreak, will most likely go to workers based in Houston.

“We’re prepared for natural disasters. That’s our job. But with coronavirus, this will hopefully be our only ever wait-and-see situation,” Lott said. “As far as funding, we have to sit and wait until we know the greatest impact of what this crisis will be. We won’t wait any longer than necessary, but we have to get a snapshot. The only caveat to that is a medical funding emergency, which goes to the top of the list. That’s coronavirus or not.”

Depending on the amount of money donated for the duration of the pandemic and beyond, Southern Smoke Foundation plans to expand its funding to those living in cities across the U.S. on a case-by-case basis, through partnerships with other organizations.

Partnerships help organizations expand their reach

The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF), an advocacy nonprofit created by and for restaurant workers, is one organization directly contributing to the Southern Smoke Foundation. The national group—which offers grants to organizations that address quality of life issues endemic in the restaurant industry—is accepting public donations for its COVID-19 Crisis Relief Fund and funneling those funds to Southern Smoke.

John deBary, founder and board president of RWCF, said prior to launching the fund on Sunday, the organization had never done direct solicitation of the public. But in the past three days, the effort has become a full-time job for the foundation’s members.

“The goal of the fund is to address this crisis in three phases,” said deBary, who noted that the largest concern is immediately helping the “millions of workers whose lives were thrown into complete chaos this week.”

According to deBary, the second phase will focus on the long-term effects as the foundation looks to give grants to organizations offering material assistance to restaurant workers, such as food security, mental health resources and support networks. The third phase will be reserved for giving zero-interest, no-collateral loans to small businesses looking to bounce back once the crisis passes.

New York nonprofit Rethink Food opened its second cafe in Brooklyn this week.
Rethink Food Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.