“The real concern is how the staff can survive with no income for several weeks.”
An order issued by Mass Governor Charlie Baker forbidding the on-premise consumption of food or drink at bars and restaurants through April 5 went into effect today. While the measure allows for take-out and delivery, it essentially shuts down the Bay State’s hospitality industry for at least three weeks, pushing businesses and their workers into uncharted territory.
As Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville prepared to shut its doors, General Manager Emma Hollander witnessed an outpouring of support from patrons.
“People were dropping off cash or asking, ‘Can you run my card for a certain amount of money?” Hollander said. “It just occurred to me that if I changed my Venmo into the business’s name, they could be sitting on the couch and Venmo their favorite restaurant workers and really figure out a way to give our staff some kind of money while we’re closed.”
Hollander updated her Venmo handle to @TrinaStarlite-ParlorSports around 8pm on Saturday, March 14, and received more than $8,000 in donations in under 48 hours. For the 37 people who are employed between Trina’s Starlite Lounge and its adjacent sister establishment, Parlor Sports, the cash infusion is sorely needed.
“Over the past couple of weeks, we hear about everybody being able to work from home, and we’ve been looking at each other like, that’s just not an option in our business,” Hollander said.
But the Venmo fund supplies the staff with more than hard cash—it’s also being used to lend moral support to the well-loved neighborhood bar.
“What I love is that with Venmo, people can write notes,” Hollander said. “We’re getting these really wonderful [notes saying], ‘You guys are our favorites,’ [and] ‘From your Tuesday night regulars, we can’t wait to see you guys when this is all over.’ It kind of brings your faith in humanity back.”
Hollander said she has seen the Venmo campaign concept spread to other establishments, and noted that Vinal Bakery owner Sarah Murphy also created a Venmo account (@VinalBakery) to directly support her staff. In addition, Newburyport’s Paddle Inn (another sister restaurant of Trina’s) is accepting donations for its staff through the Venmo handle @Paddle-Inn.
“Honestly, I think every restaurant should set up some fund or Venmo,” Hollander said.
Another Somerville establishment that’s taken to Venmo is backbar, which is using the app to create a charitable raffle to support staff.
“We’ve been dealing with the looming reality that we would have to close since last week,” owner Sam Treadway said. “But the real concern is how the staff can survive with no income for several weeks. The end result is a raffle where all the sales go to the backbar staff. The prizes are a mix of things with tangible value and more creative, light-hearted ideas that don’t have a specific monetary value. For example, getting a drink of the week customized for you, or being able to make a weekend reservation, when that isn’t something we normally offer.”
For each $10 donated to backbar’s Venmo (@backbarunion), participants receive one virtual raffle “ticket.” At 4pm each Friday and Monday, a winning name will be drawn. Each drawing will include all previously purchased tickets, save for tickets that have previously won.
In addition to the raffle, backbar will launch an online store where gift cards, merchandise, and “cocktail experiences” will be sold, with the majority of proceeds going to staff.
“We’re all in this together, and we’ve got to all stay afloat in order to end up alright on the other side,” Treadway said.
Restaurants with the ability to sell gift cards have begun to use them as a way to support staff. Via his Instagram, Chef Michael Scelfo announced that for the next month, gift cards to his restaurants Alden & Harlow and Waypoint would be sold at a discount of 20%, with proceeds used to purchase critical essentials like prepared meals, medication, and diapers for the more than 100 tipped wage and back of house staff the restaurants employ. And the JK Restaurant Group, composed of Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey, will direct 50% of all gift card sales through April 30 to a staff fund to financially support its employees.
Fred Yarm, secretary for the Boston Chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG), sees bar staff as a particularly hard-hit demographic amid the closures.
“The severity is that all bars and restaurants are closed to everything but takeout and delivery,” Yarm said. “Given that alcohol service is tightly regulated and products cannot leave the premises (save for unfinished bottles of wine when purchased with dinner) in Massachusetts, this means that only back of the house, delivery people, and a few other types of personnel still have the possibility of maintaining hours at their place of employment. Servers, bartenders, and the like are without the ability to earn hourly wages or tips, and the only other option is to apply for unemployment.”
The USBG National Charity Foundation has created a COVID-19 relief and response program in response to the crisis, which accepts donations and allows bartenders, bar backs, and cocktail servers to apply for financial relief. Membership in the USBG (the Boston chapters counts 35 members) is not required or taken into account when distributing aid.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re going to want a drink. By all means make it, enjoy it, and then think about making a donation that can ease the pain being experienced by the people who have served you drinks and food in the past—and hopefully will again soon.