Building a Better Future: How Communities Are Supporting Their Local Hospitality Industry

Jessica Elliott

Jessica couples her 24 years of restaurant and hospitality industry experience with meticulous research to deliver insight into technology, operations, and marketing topics. Her optimized copy helps companies engage their audience while strengthening their communication with clients, employees, and management.

Unprecedented job losses, restaurant closures, and millions on the verge of financial collapse. Not the way any of us expected to start a new decade. Many business owners and their staff simply want to get back to work. But, there’s uncertainty about how and when. 

In these erratic times, individuals across the United States have prioritized the needs of small business owners, hospitality workers, and fellow citizens. They have sacrificed their time, energy, and in some cases, health and well-being to take care of their community. Their stories not only serve up solutions but revelations, and it’s times like these that inspiration matters most.

Restaurant packaging meals to donate to those in need

Crowdsourcing movements deliver meals to hospitality and healthcare workers

GoFundMe accounts for emergencies, and crowdsourcing for food trucks isn’t new. Every year, over 250,000 campaigns raise $650 million or more for medical reasons. And at any given time, you’ll find thousands of food truck campaigns on platforms like KickstarterNow, communities across the country have turned to crowdfunding to support hospitality businesses and employees as well as assist healthcare workers who face hospital cafeteria closures. 

Miami, Florida

Will Osborne, a retired New York City former investment banker and asset manager, and his son, Mac Osborne, a restaurateur, began the nonprofit Meals for Heroes Miami while sheltering in place. Family member Amelia Scott says, “They’ve bought over 8,000 meals from local restaurants and donated them to hospitals, testing centers, fire and police departments, and prison infirmary staffers.”

Meals for Heroes letter from a 6th grader

Meals for Heroes Miami

Meals for Heroes Miami also delivers messages of hope and gratitude to frontline workers. Their “Notes for Heroes” campaign helps the public send handwritten words of encouragement. With over 3,100 letters given to frontline staff, the group fills hearts with hope and stomachs with meals from local restaurants. They accept donations in all increments, including: 

  • $20: Buy a nurse dinner   
  • $100: Feed an EMS Shift   
  • $500: Pay for an ICU Unit dinner   
  • $1,500: Pay for an ER shift   
  • $10,000: Feed three Miami front line shifts for a day

Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its independent cafes and coffee shops, is only a bridge away from New York City. The shutdown and stress on their healthcare systems worried many in the community. Jessica Fields, along with others, organized a GoFundMe account to give coffee and meals to healthcare workers at NY Presbyterian-Methodist Hospital in Park Slope while funneling funds back to struggling restaurants. With more than $138,000 in donations, the group expanded to deliver meals to nursing homes, Kingsbrook Medical Center, and EMS Station 31. 

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

In a mountain town with less than 11,000 people, a March 19 shutdown left many in the hospitality industry struggling. A recent survey of 200 CEOs and directors, the majority of whom run retail stores and lodgings like vacation rentals and property management companies, found:

  • 31% expect their 2020 revenues to drop 26% to 49%.
  • Nearly 47% of the businesses had to lay off employees.

Meagan Murtagh, with the help of Lisa Roarke, created The Hole Quarantine, which turns donations into meals for essential workers. The concept is simple. Anyone can donate using their online platform or Venmo. The organization uses funds to “purchase bulk orders of meals, snacks, and gift cards.” So far, an estimated $50,000 in donations has gone back into the community. 

Evanston, Illinois

Located in Cook County, which has more than 38,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the community of Evanston feels the shutdown and burden on healthcare workers deeply. With a poverty rate of 13.3%, food insecurity was an issue before the closure. Heather Bublick, the owner of Feast & Imbibe Catering Group, deployed a crowdfunding campaign to reduce food insecurity while keeping her staff employed. The platform helps citizens sponsor meals for:

  • Someone in need
  • Healthcare workers
  • Evanston Hospital Staff
  • An entire hospital department
  • Meals for I Grow Chicago
  • Community meals

The company’s barbeque division, Soul & Smoke, reported on their Instagram channel that in one week, the company delivered meals to over a dozen organizations and 250 Evanston families. 

Denver, Colorado

Shut down on March 17, Denver restaurants continue to struggle, with at least seven eateries closing their doors for good. Gretchen TeBockhorst, president and founder at Prim Communications, saw a way to help restaurants while serving frontline workers’ meals. Using a GoFundMe account, TeBockhorst formed a group called Feeding Colorado HeroesRestaurant owners add themselves to a supplier list, and donors send funds via the GoFundMe platform. At last count, 604 donors gave $64,081. You can follow their updates on Instagram, including a recent call out for donations due to a rise in coronavirus infections. Another organization in Colorado, Friends & Family, stepped up to provide meals for out of work hospitality staff. Twice a week, they offer family meals for affected workers. In operation since 2017, the nonprofit group assists those in the hospitality industry year-round. On March 6, they announced on Instagram that their organization has “served 100,000 meals as of last week.” 

Madison, Wisconsin

The National Restaurant Association estimates that “$630 million in lost sales occurred in Wisconsin in April and “84% of Wisconsin restaurant operators say they have laid off or furloughed employees since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in March.” This resulted in 136,000 (and counting) lost food service jobs. Kessenich’s Limited, a restaurant equipment and supply company, met the challenge by finding ways to assist hospitality workers. The GoFundMe campaign, S.O.S. Save Our Staff, offers several ways to support impacted folks:

  • $50: Pay a worker’s utility bill
  • $100: Help a worker pay their car insurance
  • $200: Put food on the table for a worker’s family
  • $500: Help a worker pay their rent or mortgage
  • $1000: Help three or four workers pay their bills

With more than 380 donors and over $57,000 raised, the fund has partnered with other business leaders to spread the message. In The Capital Times, Lindsay Christians reports, “At the start of May, S.O.S. moved into phase two, a partnership with local food businesses like JBC Coffee Roasters and Bunky’s Catering.” This gives folks more ways to buy local and give back. You can listen to the podcast featuring Kelly Hopkins of Kessenich and Teresa Pullara-Quabel of Bunky’s Catering online

Innovative ideas designed to help local businesses

From crisis relief to restaurants-turned food pantries, business owners and community members band together to address problems. Many communities created Facebook pages to highlight takeout, delivery, and other offerings from local eateries. Hashtag campaigns, like #TheGreatAmericanTakeout, spurred local movements as well. The Habit Burger Grill joined a coalition of restaurants supporting The Great American Takeout movement. In a press release, Russ Bendel, CEO of The Habit Burger Grill, says, “It’s about the future of our industry. And time has run out. Together, we must act to support each other and our communities in unprecedented ways.” Another site, Dining at a Distance, aggregates restaurant information for your city. Simply put in your city name, and you’ll get information such as services offered, food category, and specific neighborhoods served.  

St. Petersburg, Florida

Seeing many cities across the country support bartenders, servers, and baristas, Adriana Generallo was motivated to support her local hospitality workers in St. Pete by creating the St. Pete Virtual Tip JarSt. Petersburg Virtual Tip Jar logo“We’re inspired by other cities across the country that are looking for ways to support the staff of their favorite bars, restaurants, coffee shops, clubs, and salons. In an effort to show our appreciation and support, we’re compiling a list of St. Pete service industry workers and their Venmo, CashApp, and PayPal accounts to be shared widely,” said Generallo and other organizers.The site currently features over one hundred hospitality workers from the vibrant local restaurant and bar scene. 

Houston, Texas

Since 2015, Southern Smoke has provided crisis relief for food and beverage workers. In previous years, they’d give out different amounts each month, ranging from $5,000 to $30,000 or more. But, in April 2020, the nonprofit foundation distributed over one million in funds. Recently featured in Food and Wine, chef Chris Shepherd shared details about their process to handle the flood of applications:

  • Apply in English, Vietnamese, or Spanish.
  • Applications prioritized according to the urgency.
  • Each application gets a caseworker.
  • The awards committee holds an anonymous vote for a case-by-case decision.

Nationwide community support

Laid-off workers, business owners, and empathetic community members continue to find new ways to help everyone get through these tough times. Although it’s a struggle to meet the need and develop different business models, folks hope to hold up their neighbors until we can all get back to work. 

Boosting sales through gift cards

The newly launched Community Carecard provides a platform for all business owners, across the US, to promote and sell gift cards even without a web presence. Susan Shain mentions that she’s part of an “all-volunteer team that helps small businesses sell digital gift cards, even if they don’t have a website yet. It’s a cool initiative to help local businesses all over the country.” 

Feeding laid-off hospitality workers in restaurant food pantries

Restaurants across the United States are joining the Restaurant Workers Relief Program. At restaurants like Mita’s in Cincinnati and Cochon in New Orleans, owners open their hearts to unemployed food service workers. According to Food and Wine, the “teams pack hundreds of to-go meals for laid-off workers to pick up and take home.” But that’s not all. Each restaurant-turned-food-pantry offers baby care and hygiene essentials, fresh produce, and canned goods. 

Connecting communities for a better future

Before the closures, it is doubtful folks gave much thought to the importance their Friday night dinner played in their quality of life or the lives of those individuals serving their entrees. This is a dawn of realizations for many of us. Although numerous challenges lay ahead, it is good to know that hospitality runs deep not just within this industry but also within our communities.

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