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Absent other aid, independent restaurants crowdsource to make payroll, stay afloat

Dining room closures and falling traffic have created a desperate situation for small restaurants.
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Photograph: Shutterstock

With the owners of Nella Pizza e Pasta on lockdown because their daughter is quarantined after a classmate tested positive for the coronavirus, the Chicago restaurant turned to GoFundMe to raise money for its employees.

“The front-of-house employees survive on tips, the back-of-house employees live on an hourly wage,” said Jim Bloom, the restaurant’s marketing consultant. “Restaurants are not a cash reserve-rich business. … At the current location, they were doing great. Still, that represents a lot of tips that need to be made whole for employees. Tips don’t come out of the treasury, they come out of the patrons. That’s why we decided to go into a GoFundMe situation.”

Absent clear packages of state and federal aid to small restaurants, and amid mass layoffs at many restaurant groups, operators are turning to crowdfunding and other fundraising efforts to support their employees and, in some cases, keep their restaurants afloat.

As of midday Wednesday, a search of “restaurant” on GoFundMe yielded 21,306 results and climbing, with donations pouring in from around the country to support individual restaurants as well as hospitality workers in entire cities.

The Nella Restaurant Workers Fund had raised $5,088 of its $20,000 goal by Wednesday afternoon, about 18 hours after the fundraiser’s creation. The full-service pizza and pasta establishment sweetened the deal for donors, offering an invitation to a special post-pandemic thank you dinner for a donation of $50 or more.

“We are not in a position to make our employees completely whole during the crisis,” Nella’s appeal says. “Please help us aid our colleagues.”

GoFundMe isn’t the only source of fundraising activity for restaurants during the coronavirus crisis.

Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which has shut down all of its New York City restaurants and laid off much of its staff, has created a relief fund for its employees. Meyer said he is contributing his “entire compensation” to the fund and that his executive team is taking a “meaningful pay cut.” For the next several days, all USHG gift card purchases will go toward the group’s employees.

Some groups are selling T-shirts and beer can koozies to support local hospitality communities. Bars are hosting virtual happy hours, opening online tip jars to support their bartenders.

In Chicago alone, a circulating Google document titled “Chicago Hospitality Employee Relief Guide” lists 275 GoFundMe and other campaigns to support the city’s restaurant workers.

In New York City, Restaurant Marc Forgione had raised $32,420 of its $100,000 goal Wednesday.

“This has been a very sad few days and some of the most difficult in our entire careers,” the restaurant posted on GoFundMe. “Though these are dark days for us, our resilient family has survived the recession and post-9-11 so we know that we will survive this as well.”

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