For Michelle Cudia, a bartender at Tria Taproom, the news about the citywide restaurant shut down came—as it did for many—swiftly and suddenly.
Cudia was scheduled to show up for work on Monday night; instead, she got emails from Tria’s owner and general manager saying that she and her coworkers were being immediately furloughed.
That put Cudia among the thousands of Philadelphia food industry workers out of a job this week. She applied for unemployment that night, is still on the company health plan and has assurance from Tria’s owners that they will rehire their staff, if possible, as soon as possible. But as of now, Cudia’s not sure how she’ll pay her $200 monthly health insurance premium, her rent, or take care of her pets.
According to an Economy League report from late last year, some 79,000 people work in the food industry in Philadelphia, accounting for 12 percent of all jobs. More than half of those jobs are in restaurants, where the average annual wage (as of 2016) was around $21,000. These are not folks, in other words, who have abundant savings.
These are also some of the most economically vulnerable people in our midst: Nationally, restaurants are the number one employer of single women, citizens returning from incarceration, and first time workers, and a huge employer of immigrants. And many of them make their income primarily in tips, paid to them by those of us they feed, make drinks for, and serve in city restaurants.
That’s why Cudia on Wednesday night launched Philly Virtual Tip Jar, as a way to allow for direct donations to wait staff and bartenders. Here’s how it works: Restaurant workers can fill out this Google form with their names; the restaurant where they work; and leave a PayPal or Venmo address.
Longtime customers (or anyone) can go to this Google Spreadsheet for the running list—updated daily at noon—and then donate a “tip” to those listed through their devices. The spreadsheet, which allows you to search by name of person or of the restaurant, works on an honor system.
At the request of some donors who wanted to give to the general cause, Cudia turned her own Venmo into a collection for the Virtual Tip Jar, which she will distribute evenly among the participants. So far, over 500 workers have signed up, and she’s collected about $400 in the collective account (not yet enough to give out).
“I know this Tip Jar isn’t going to pay my rent,” Cudia says. “But it’s given me something to think about while I process all this. I’m happy to help any way I can.”
Cudia says she got the idea from a similar program in D.C., sent to her from one of her fellow competitors in Speed Rack, an all-female bartending competition that raises money for breast cancer research. In Pittsburgh, the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University also launched a virtual tip jar this week; it already has more than 2,600 people on it.
Another project, the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund, launched this week as well, to help food workers. A Facebook group started by Cheryl Molle, it aims to raise at least $21,000 in donations, out of which they will send $400 a week to at least 13 workers while they are unemployed. Already, the group raised its donation goal from $10,000 after an outpouring of support; as of this writing, they’d raised more than $19,000.
This are direct ways to help those in the restaurant world who are struggling. In San Francisco, Jackie Patterson Brenner—an award-winning mixologist and liquor marketer‚ who has worked in Bay Area restaurants for 15 years—has another.
She launched a Facebook group called Server to Sitter to help her two main groups of friends: Food service workers who don’t have income coming in, and mothers of young children who have to work. The group, which now has 100 members, lets people post “ISO: Childcare” and “ISO: Work.”
“Some people don’t have the luxury or privilege to stop working,” Brenner says. That includes healthcare workers, and others in jobs that are deemed essential. “This way, hopefully, they can connect with a single person to help with childcare, rather than bringing multiple people into their homes.”
These twin needs—childcare and jobs for servers—exists here in Philly, too. Is it another idea we should steal?
It is early days still, and the pain is likely to be deep and long-lasting for many Philly restaurants, which are mostly small businesses with small margins.
“People are coming to the realization that we are in crisis mode,” Ben Fileccia, of Pennsylvania Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said earlier this week, shortly after the mayor ordered all dine-in establishments shuttered for two weeks. “People don’t know, if you’re an employee, how you’re going to pay your rent. As an employer, you might not know how you’re going to open up again.”
Still, even in the past few days, many restaurateurs are doing what their business often calls for: Scrambling to make it work. Some have launched their own virtual tip jars, including Rally Coffee and La Colombe. Philadelphia Distilling Company announced they are doing no-touch, drive-thru pickups of their bottles, as a way to keep some tasting room employees working.
Several have, or are planning to, launch to-go and delivery meal services, which might help their bottom line—and keep some people employed over the next several weeks. (Check out the Dining at a Distance Guide and Philly Mag’s list.) Judy Ni at baology on Friday, for example, is launching a meal-delivery program, in partnership with other independent, female-owned food businesses, including El Merkury and Triple Bottom Brewing.
Larger restaurant groups, like Tria, have been able to keep their employees on health plans, and announced Friday that proceeds of all gift cards purchased between now and April 15th will go towards paying employees’ health insurance premiums. And CookNSolo restaurant group (Zahav, Federal Donuts) has pledged to give money from any gift cards purchased in these weeks to their hourly employees. Already, they’ve raised $25,000; if they reach $40,000 by Friday, they promise to match the donations.
You can also buy gift cards online at restaurants you’ll frequent later, as a way to keep them afloat in the short term.
Fileccia notes that more ideas to help restaurants, owners and workers will hopefully be forthcoming in the next few days.
If so, it will be well-deserved. This is an industry, after all, that doesn’t just employ tens of thousands of people, contributing something like 4 percent of the wage tax to the city of Philadelphia. It also gives and gives to those in need, from gift cards to every imaginable auction, to the Great Chefs event that raises around $1 million a year for Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Feastival, which has raised several million dollars for Fringe Festival over the last decade.
“Restaurants are always these guys who give back,” Fileccia notes. “Now we’ll have to take care of ourselves for once—and maybe get the support of everyone we’ve been helping out forever.”
That seems fair, doesn’t it?Header photo courtesy Sam Dan Truong / Unsplash