The many ways that service workers have used creativity and collaborations to survive the pandemic
BY CHRIS FARAONE, HALEY HAMILTON, KEIKO HIROMI, ERIC TWARDZIK
Bars and restaurants in Greater Boston ceased normal operations in mid-March as a result of COVID-19. By early April, we were already out of ways to express the excruciating desperation hovering on the horizon. Between beloved establishments closing their doors and the reverberations felt by hospitality workers and their families, there was no positive news to report.
Still, our reporters tried their best to search for bright spots. And with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and assistance from the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, we discovered glimmers of hope—largely in the form of people and entities helping each other, but also in some attempts to safeguard the industry against future turmoil.
To date, we have published more than 30 articles covering the ingenuity and creativity that’s surfaced in the face of so much tragedy. Some of the solutions and ideas were born on a whim; others were directly inspired by actions underway out of state; many are hybrids and have snowballed in the past several months—some taking on additional responsibilities, others being absorbed into traditional nonprofits to ensure continued impact over the long term.
Our plan is to incorporate all of our reporting done under this umbrella into a physical Silver Dining Playbook that you will be able to purchase soon, with proceeds going toward more nonprofit reporting on this front, plus our writers and a service industry charity to be named. The goal is for the manual to help anyone facing comparable turbulence, pandemic related or otherwise, in years to come.
In the meantime, herein we have featured highlights from our work over the past six months, all showing how restaurant staffers and owners alike have risen to the occasion.
If you have flown on a plane, then you have been instructed to secure your own oxygen mask before helping others. Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, restaurant workers realized that if their establishments stood any chance of making it through upcoming challenges, they first needed to make sure that their own employees were taken care of.
One early effort to support fellow staff and assist community members was Project Paulie, a joint undertaking between Narragansett Beer, Red Bull, and Tequila Tromba to deliver homemade lasagna and cocktail care packages to out-of-work restaurant workers across the state. What was first conjured as a plan to feed furloughed bartender pals quickly morphed into a multipronged project to reach as many unemployed hospitality industry workers as possible.
“At first we thought we’ll give this to a few bartender friends we know who have lost their jobs; now, it’s everybody,” said Nicky Bandera, a sales rep for Tequila Tromba. “Bar owners who have loans out and can’t make rent … they’re not gonna be open anymore. It’s wild. … Owners are just as screwed as dishwashers and bussers. We’ve been all the way out to Worcester, and we’re delivering to everyone from servers to drag queens.”
Some celebrity chef-owners focused on feeding people in their own industry. Working with the Louisville-based Lee Initiative and Maker’s Mark, Ming Tsai of Blue Dragon pitched in with the Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, while Jody Adams of Porto, Trade, and Saloniki provided “meals to Boston’s frontline health care workers and displaced restaurant employees.” And in Cambridge, Tracy Chang, owner-chef of Pagu, was one of the first restaurant partners of Off Their Plate, a creation of Harvard Medical Student Natalie Guo that works to provide relief for health care and restaurant employees. Collaborating with NPO World Central Kitchen, OTP raised millions and quickly expanded to multiple cities and hundreds of restaurants and health care facilities across the nation.
“As a completely volunteer-run organization, 100% of our donations go to our restaurant partners,” Dillan Arrick of OTP explained. “They have committed to providing at least 50% of that donation to economic relief for their staff. We have worked with our restaurants to average about $10 per meal so that the donation dollars can stretch further. In this way, we are able to serve and support a high number of health care workers on the frontline of COVID.”
The Lee Initiative, originally launched by chef Edward Lee of 601 Magnolia in Louisville, became a clutch national emergency food and goods program. In Boston, it partnered with Blue Dragon to provide meals and essential supplies to out-of-work hospitality workers and expanded its reach by partnering with Jamaica Plain restaurant Jamaica Me Hungry’s food truck for meal and supply pickup.
In a comparable effort, the Chicago-based distilled beverage behemoth Beam Suntory set up Shift Meals To-Go, which partners with local restaurants offering takeout service. Hospitality industry workers can call and place an order for pickup courtesy of Beam Suntory.
The gift that…
Though hardly a sustainable long-term solution, for restaurants that had to close and even some that stayed servicing pickup and delivery orders in the dark days of April and May before driveways were turned into dining rooms, a lot of restaurants asked regulars to purchase gift cards, and in many cases, loyal customers obliged in numbers that made a real difference. In select cases, the arrangements even benefited more than just the customers and owners.
The JK Restaurant Group, composed of Toro, Coppa, and Little Donkey, directed 50% of all gift card sales through April to a staff support fund. In Somerville, cocktail destination backbar turned to Venmo, using the app to create a charitable raffle to support staff.
“We’ve been dealing with the looming reality,” owner Sam Treadway said. “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 each $10 donated to backbar’s Venmo (@backbarunion), participants received a virtual raffle “ticket.” “We’re all in this together, and we’ve got to all stay afloat in order to end up all right on the other side,” Treadway said.
Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville and sister bar Parlor Sports launched two initiatives to support their staff who may not be eligible for government benefits.
“In our community, that is our biggest concern right now,” Emma Hollander, managing partner at both locations, said about the campaigns. “Our entire front-of-house (servers and bartenders) is already on unemployment, but the people that can’t get unemployment are just fucked.”
“We’re calling the first [initiative] Turning Restaurant Workers Into Art Dealers, because that’s honestly the best way to capture it.” For this project, Emma partnered with her sister, mixed-media artist Tanja Hollander, for a two-birds-one-stone style collaboration.
“Just as much as bars and restaurants are struggling, artists are also obviously super struggling and not eligible for unemployment or any of that,” Emma said. They set it up so that by mentioning a local restaurant at checkout on Tanja’s website—a handful of local spots have promoted this collaboration—half of the sale amount goes to the restaurant’s Venmo account.
“Art is one of those things you don’t buy when you don’t have disposable income,” Emma said. “You’re helping her survive, helping us survive, and you get a beautiful piece of work from it.”
Opening a Venmo account to take donations for out-of-work staff has been popular with many bars and restaurants in the area, but this partnership changed up the standard donation vibe. “I think that the Venmo campaigns everyone is doing are great,” Emma said, “but with this you get something really special out of Venmoing our staff.”
For the second branch of the campaign, Trina’s and Parlor Sports partnered with local bartender and graphic designer Ryan Merry, as well as the online T-shirt printing company Real Thread to launch Support The Homies Campaign.
“Right now, people want to know if their bars have swag or merch they can buy, and for the places that don’t, ordering 2,000 shirts right now is completely out of the question; nobody can spend any money on anything,” Emma said. “This has been great for us because you can order directly through the website and they print and ship them themselves, so you eliminate the middleman.”
Other Cambridge and Somerville participants have included Vinal Bakery, Viale, Highland Kitchen, and State Park. Each shirt sells for $25 and features each spot’s logo as well as original establishment-inspired images, like a Miller High Life tallboy and an aerial view of Inman Square.
“All of that money is getting distributed amongst our employees who may not be eligible for government assistance across all six restaurants,” Emma said. “That’s a huge concern in our business and in our industry—how do we help people who aren’t getting help from government sponsored programs?”
The podcast 86 Bartender launched in response to the closure of bars and restaurants in March. Hosted by Eddy Shaw and Joe Mueller-Robinson of Allston’s the Avenue, it aims to bring the energy and connection of sitting at a crowded bar to everyone holed up and responsibly drinking at home and is one of several homegrown enterprises launched—like Boston’s #BartendingInSweatpants video series, the Game Over COVID-19 livestream video games from Reboot Arcade Bar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the Virtual Happy Hour in Texas—to raise funds for the United States Bartender’s Guild emergency relief fund and for local bartenders who have, essentially, been 86ed from their jobs due to the pandemic.
“Me and Joe work together a lot, usually on industry nights,” Shaw said. Their show speaks to—and with—those who may have lost a bartender’s shoulder to whine on. He continued, “Some of the best customers we get are late night, other people in the industry just getting off of work, or who are on their weekend, and some of our favorite memories from work are just shooting the shit with those people.”
Katrina Jazayeri and Joshua Lewin, co-proprietors of Juliet + Company, which operates Juliet in Somerville and Peregrine on Beacon Hill, also turned to media. Having released magazines and cookbooks in the past, early on in the pandemic they dropped the first edition of Bean Zine, “a publication geared toward helping you cook the way we need to cook now—from the pantry.” The Juliet gang also hosts live and taped shows on YouTube and IGTV, joining others, such as Clover Food Lab, who are bringing culinary skills to the small screen, and more recently has had success combining educational programs with food sales.
“First we did meal kits only and decided that if you’re going to take this chance with us, there will be a cooking class, for free,” Lewin said. “It really is an exciting piece of what we do that people get to enjoy if they’re not going to be dining in. Two months ago we weren’t there, we were all just trying to get people—and ourselves—through the shock, but now we have some room, some options.”
As restaurants reopen, and close, and reopen, and introduce indoor seating, then tweak their setups, and so on, it can seem as if the people who power these places are left out of the conversation. In paying close attention to listservs and industry Facebook groups, however, we kept a finger on the pulse of actual workers and owners, many of whom are constantly searching for best practices.
We have also been on the lookout for intelligent safety protocols, and to some surprise our research led us to Texas, which was one of the last states to shut down amid the initial coronavirus outbreak. It was also one of the first to reopen, blowing through the process by moving through three phases in less than six weeks.
Disturbed by lax regulations in the Lone Star State and frustrated by a lack of support and guidance from officials, Good Work Austin, an Austin-based small business advocacy group made up largely of bars and restaurants, issued its own set of actionable guidelines for safely reopening. While a hefty portion of Good Work Austin’s action items focus on public health and sanitation requirements, most of which are already mandated in Mass, the group also specifically addresses paid sick leave in a way that ensures a staff member potentially infected with COVID-19 can afford to quarantine for 14 days, an issue that has yet to be addressed in Mass.
“This is a conversation we, as an organization, have been having about running restaurants successfully, financially, and making staff earnings more equitable and more predictable,” said Adam Orman, GWA member and owner and general manager of L’Oca d’Oro in Austin. “This is when you need that, when low-wage workers are actually, literally, afraid for their lives. They need to know they’re not dependent on tips.”
As stated in the GWA agreement, the employee wellness charge is an additional percentage at the discretion of participating establishments (3% is recommended), with the itemized charge applied to every check processed. These funds can then be used to provide access to health care and to help ensure that if someone is required to quarantine, they won’t have to forfeit groceries or a rent payment to do so.
“We want to make a way for paid sick leave to work for business,” Orman said. Adding a small charge to guest transactions was a realistic way to get funding in place immediately. “This can’t be a zero sum game,” he noted. “We’ve gotta figure out a way to have the government subsidize it, get tax breaks for it, whatever it is. Employees need sick leave.”
Until that day comes, we’ll be searching coast to coast for answers and solutions, and interviewing people from inside and beyond the service industry who are considering the greater good and implementing hopeful changes against seemingly insurmountable odds.