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
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

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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

New York-based Rethink Food is refocusing its efforts to help 30 city restaurants stay afloat for the next two to three months. The nonprofit’s usual operation involves collecting food excess from restaurants and companies across the city, including Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern and Goldman Sachs. Rethink’s chefs then repurpose that food into new meals at their Brooklyn Navy Yard kitchen, which are distributed to local communities in need through partners like soup kitchens and churches.

In response to COVID-19, Rethink has launched the Restaurant Response Program, which will offer up to 30 local restaurants stipends of up to $40,000 to pay their rent and keep on as many employees as they can. The restaurants, which will be chosen through an online application process, will act as a distribution arm of Rethink and offer delivery and takeout meals per the new rules set by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Rethink’s executive director Meg Savage said each participating location will offer people meals for free, and will also accept food donations of any amount. One of the first participating restaurants is Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village. To boost its overall effort, Rethink is also hiring additional in-house chefs and opened its second cafe in Brooklyn this week, which will offer grab-and-go meals.

Along with its own programs, Rethink has also partnered with chef José Andrés, who closed his D.C.- and New York-based restaurants and turned them into community kitchens through his nonprofit food organization, World Central Kitchen. Savage said Rethink will partner with World Central Kitchen to be an extension of their efforts in New York, offering meals to those who need them in the Bronx.

The general public can chip in, too

As local nonprofits work to support industry workers, those not in the nonprofit world are also doing their part. In Washington, D.C., a couple in the hospitality industry launched the D.C. Virtual Tip Jar to help service workers in the city who were laid off or struggling due to coronavirus closures. Workers affected can fill out a questionnaire and, once approved, are added to a public Google spreadsheet. The spreadsheet, which has more than 2,100 names and counting, includes where they were (or still are) employed, whether or not they have health insurance, and their Venmo, Paypal or Cash App account names for the public to send virtual tips.

Gift cards are another easy way for the general public to help support their favorite local restaurants or bars. While Racines NY hasn’t been involved with a nonprofit program yet, Moya said the restaurant has seen an uptick in gift card purchases, through the website Rally for Restaurants, as a form of donation.

As Racines NY continues to do as much as it can to keep supporting employees internally, Moya views the future of his business with uncertainty once that’s no longer feasible. He said he hopes local legislation is passed that might ease the operations of restaurants or allow them to go dormant.

“After figuring out how to apply for unemployment, it will basically just be the Wild West,” he said. “We have to keep pushing for the entity of the restaurant to maintain the ability to hire people again. But until there’s some major legislation, we might be dead in the water.”

For restaurants that do come out the other side once it’s safe to begin hosting diners again, Moya expects them to find the dining landscape of New York changed forever.

“People’s attitudes toward dining will change, and it may take awhile for people to begin spending money again,” he said. “[Dining out] is kind of a luxury, but it’s vital, just like the arts. I’m optimistic it will come back, but it’s going to be different.” 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.