COVID-19 dealt a devastating blow to the restaurant industry. In the first weeks state governments began enacting social distancing restrictions, dining rooms shut down, putting millions of restaurant employees out of work. With government aid still an open question, it was immediately clear that both workers and restaurant owners would need financial help from other sources to get through this indefinite period of time. Restaurant industry advocates leapt into action, raising money for restaurants and their workers. But, a newly laid off restaurant worker or a business owner looking for relief in recent days might be met with some added frustration.
After clicking the “Apply for Aid” link on the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Employee Relief Fund page, a message eventually appears: “Due to extremely high volume the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund website (RERF.us) is experiencing technical issues. We are working quickly to solve the problem and appreciate your patience.”
On the section of the James Beard Foundation website dedicated to the JBF Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund for independent restaurants, a message reads: “Due to an overwhelming response within hours of opening, the Foundation has suspended the application for the JBF Food and Beverage Industry Relief Fund at this time.”
And on Restaurant Opportunities Center United’s relief fund application page: “We are temporarily pausing our application form as we work through the thousands of applications already submitted.”
Just days after establishing funds to aid an ailing restaurant industry, nonprofits and trade associations are overwhelmed. For some of these organizations, providing financial aid to individuals and businesses is a first-time endeavor with natural growing pains. But more than anything, the closed applications speak to the same unprecedented need that has led to inundated unemployment offices and crashed websites.
In one week, the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) received nearly 10,000 applications for financial assistance. The organization was founded to provide relief to restaurant workers following 9/11, but it has since grown into an advocacy group, and it wasn’t prepared to handle the huge response. “Our staff have to be counselors and therapists and provide unemployment assistance. They have to deal with things they’ve never had to deal with,” says ROC deputy director of programs and research Teofilo Reyes.
After that first week, ROC closed the fund to new applications to concentrate on addressing the ones they have in. “We have a huge backlog,” says Reyes. “We’re working through reaching out to the people who applied, processing their requests, verifying their need, and then sending funds to them. It’s a process that’s slower than we’d like it to be, but that’s why we had to pause it.”
ROC has already begun sending out sums between $100 and $300 via Paypal to restaurant workers who applied for relief, a more complicated and time-consuming process than anticipated. According to Reyes, the exact amount of each payout is based on three criteria: “Do they have a child, or do they have an elderly relative in their care? Are they eligible for unemployment insurance? And do they have urgent need, such as an eviction notice or utilities shut off?” ROC also provides workers with strategies they can use to help themselves, such as setting up a virtual tip jar on Facebook or putting together a petition with coworkers if an employer denies benefits. “We’re not a service agency,” Reyes stresses.
To fund its efforts, ROC plans to raise $3 million, with all of that money going directly to restaurant workers. But right now, merely being able to work through the volume of applications is the biggest hurdle. “The main problem is processing,” Reyes explains. To that end, ROC tapped student volunteers at Prescott College in Arizona, and is looking for more. The team is reminded of the demand daily: Reyes notes the closed application page is still visited by around 5,000 people per day.
The James Beard Foundation, also a nonprofit, stopped taking applications for aid after it received more than 4,200 from small, independent restaurants in just the first few hours. “We made the difficult decision to close the application period early out of respect for would-be applicants and to manage the expectations of what the fund would be able to provide,” says CEO Clare Reichenbach.
The fund is designed to give $15,000 micro-grants to food and beverage businesses, with grants dispersed evenly across 12 geographic regions (the same regions delineated in the James Beard Awards Best Chef categories). Eligible restaurants will begin receiving those grants the week of April 6, and the Foundation continues to raise money for the fund. “If funds raised exceed what it would take to provide grants to qualified applicants we’ve already received, we will open the application again,” Reichenbach says.
The interest will be there. Most U.S. states have stay-at-home orders in place, meaning restaurants, as nonessential businesses, have been forced to cease anything but delivery and takeout. In recent days, concerns around the safety of maintaining those operations has led to more complete restaurant closures, eliminating jobs for even more restaurant workers; the National Restaurant Association (which declined to comment for this story) estimates that the number of unemployed restaurant workers could reach between 5 and 7 million by June. The stimulus package signed into effect on March 27, along with unemployment, may ease financial burdens for some, but funds set up by restaurant world nonprofits are unfortunately necessary for the survival of the industry and its workers.
“Restaurant workers are vulnerable on a good day. The fact that they’re two or three shifts away from financial ruin made this crisis hit hard really quickly,” says John deBary, president of Restaurant Workers Community Foundation (RWCF). The nonprofit, which launched in 2018 as an advocacy organization focused on grantmaking and impact investing, announced plans to establish a fund for restaurant workers impacted by COVID-19 on March 15. But it soon realized it would need help. “After six hours it became clear that this was not something we could manage responsibly,” deBary explains. RWCF partnered with Southern Smoke, a nonprofit that has provided emergency relief to restaurant workers since Hurricane Harvey. Now, “Restaurant Workers Community Foundation is focused on raising the money so we can let the professionals at Southern Smoke do the work they’ve been doing for years, just on a bigger scale.”
Southern Smoke has received nearly 13,000 applications for aid during the coronavirus crisis. Its team of screeners reviews applications “in real time” and prioritizes them based on urgency, with “life-or-death” situations and vulnerable populations receiving highest priority, according to Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott. The amount of money granted depends on each individual situation — “it’s working with the applicant to pinpoint what would truly get them up and out of their crisis,” Lott says — but on average, Southern Smoke and RWCF are giving $2,000 per applicant and $35,000 per day.
The partnership makes these amounts possible. “The fundraising efforts have to be limitless and tireless,” Lott says. “We could not be doing this work without these guys.” RWCF was also able to give Southern Smoke money to shore up its online system and helped expand the Southern Smoke workforce with unemployed restaurant workers so that the team wouldn’t run into bandwidth issues.
A lack of bandwidth seems to be the primary issue for nonprofits with applications on pause, and it’s an issue other nonprofits have devised strategies to overcome. Another Round Another Rally (ARAR), which provides scholarships and emergency assistance to the hospitality industry, stops accepting applications to its COVID-19 relief fund every weekend to give its volunteers time to process them, prioritizing based on how critical the need is. ARAR CEO and co-founder Amanda Gunderson estimates that ARAR has received upwards of 55,000 applications for relief, but she and co-founder Travis Nass and board member Kiowa Bryan want to keep the number of people looking at the applications low. And processing the applications is no easy task — Gunderson notes that Spanish-language applicants are invited to submit applications over the phone — and so ARAR also limits the amount of time volunteers can dedicate to processing applications to two hours at a time two days per week. “Really, it’s to protect our volunteers’ mental health,” Gunderson says.
ARAR initially sent out its $500 grants through Paypal, thinking it would be the fastest way to get money in people’s pockets, but found a bottleneck. “[Paypal] blocked our movements. They’re impossible to get in touch with.” Now, they’re sending checks in the mail.
But regardless of whether a nonprofit has found ways to adapt, for all of these funds, running out of money is a concern. “We are working every day to continue to raise money,” says Gunderson, who is adamant about maintaining ARAR’s $500 per person grant amount. “We’ve been given big grants — $1 million from Campari — but even with those giant ones, we don’t have enough money to service the need we have right now.”
RWCF has raised $2.6 million for its COVID-19 relief fund, a combination of small donations and commitments from institutions, and RWCF board treasurer Michael Remaley worries that those big institutional donations have slowed. “I want to emphasize how small that is in comparison to the size of the population we’re talking about: $2.6 million for 10 percent of U.S. workers is minuscule,” he says.
Restaurant industry nonprofits and advocates have never felt more vital, but saving restaurants from the coronavirus crisis should not rest with them. And even as they try, it’s clear that some are only equipped to do so much. “We’re all trying to build the airplane while we’re flying it.” says Remaley. “There’s a certain goodwill that should be extended to all organizations that are trying really hard to meet the massive amount of need.”
“We wish we could support everybody but the need is pretty overwhelming,” says ROC’s Reyes. “We’re doing the best we can.”