“We’re the modern community center,” says Jason Freiman, president of Footman Hospitality, which owns six bars throughout Chicago including Bangers & Lace, Sparrow, Kite String Cantina, Bucktown Pub, Spilt Milk and Little Victories. So when Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all bars and restaurants in the state to close on March 15th due to coronavirus, forcing Footman to furlough 123 employees, Freiman approached that community with a GoFundMe campaign in an attempt to provide his staff with financial oxygen during the shutdown. In less than two weeks, it’s raised half of the $50,000 goal, which doesn’t surprise Freiman at all.
“If you go to your local watering hole to spend time with your friends, family and neighbors, it becomes so much more than a bar, especially in a neighborhood-driven city like Chicago,” he tells me. “We’re passing the virtual tip jar now. If we’ve extended you community and hospitality — or maybe even a free drink or two — we ask that you give a little kindness in return. We’re all starting from scratch here; these are unprecedented times.”
With nearly all Americans now observing some form of quarantine and social distancing, pretty much every bar and dine-in restaurant in the country has closed in an attempt to flatten the curve, which has had a catastrophic impact on those who work at them. The total number of bartenders in the U.S. is just under 700,000, according to Kim Haasarud, vice president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBC), who explains that the “overwhelming majority” of those drink slingers are now out of a job.
For Eric Grenier, a board member of the Bay Area USBC chapter who has been working in the industry for 27 years, the crisis hits home. “This is my calling,” he says, earnestly. “Tending bar is what I was meant to do.” As such, Grenier thought, What’s the quickest way to get money in the hands of people that need it most?
His answer: Create a Google Doc to gather as many GoFundMe campaigns for bars and restaurants as he could find, which now totals more than 500 entries, including Freiman’s. Grenier’s thinking was that by having a centralized hub for online restaurant and bar fundraisers, people could donate even if they don’t see their local joint on the list. “In this industry, we have an innate need to help people, whether good times or bad, so this is a good place to start,” he says.
Chris Blanchard, a 53-year-old sommelier in Napa Valley, with three kids, started a GoFundMe for a sommelier emergency fund when he was laid off last week from Vine Hill Ranch, a vineyard in Oakville producing bottles that retail for $225. “Nobody’s buying that kind of wine right now,” he tells. “The sommelier is pretty much the first person to get let go when there’s an issue, and we’re the last to be hired back. Hopefully, this will help in the meantime.”
For me, the preponderance of the pandemic became apparent when Fubar, an edgy East Village gay bar transplanted to West Hollywood (and one of my favorite haunts in L.A.) shut down and laid off all of its 15 employees. “It turns bad very quickly for people that live paycheck-to-paycheck,” owner Jay Krymis tells me. “Today, I had a panicked doorman call and say that he didn’t know where to go and didn’t have any food. While there are programs in West Hollywood helping to pay gay people’s rent, many of my employees’ names aren’t on the leases. They’re screwed, so we decided to throw a fundraiser together for the guys.” (They’ve raised a little more than half of a $10,000 goal thus far.) Krymis says any amount will help his team weather the rough patch, and he’s determined to keep them on once the governor allows Fubar to reopen. “It all adds up, and it’s really beautiful.”
In Detroit, the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in Michigan with nearly 1,000 cases, Sean Patrick co-owns Willis Show Bar. It opened in the 1940s and was shut down in 1978, after which it sat empty for 40 years until Patrick resurrected it to heyday form, including a semicircle stage behind the bar for live music and burlesque performers. The 51-year-old’s GoFundMe, which has raised a third of its $10,000 goal, will benefit a bar staff of 12 and members of the nine house bands in rotation. “Tips are the main source of their income, and for the musicians, it’s 100 percent,” he tells me. “It’s getting to the point where my guys are applying for jobs at Amazon, but who knows if those are still going to be around with infections in seven of the warehouses.”
Far and away, the most pressing anxiety facing bar and restaurant workers I spoke with relates to rent. “It’s a straight-up panic because we’ve been out of work for the entire month,” says Candice Jae, a 37-year-old bartender at Evil Eye in San Francisco, whose GoFundMe has raised $5,500 of a $13,000 goal. Adding to her anxiety, like most bartenders, Jae goes without health care since it’s not offered at any of the three bars that employ her. Some, like Blanchard, are fortunate to get health care through their spouse’s plan, but even the USBC can’t help with medical assistance. “That’s not something we offer at this time,” Haasarud tells me.
“I choose the gamble of paying my student loans over having money for health insurance because I can’t afford both,” Jae says matter-of-factly. Which now leaves her crossing her fingers. “If I ever went to the hospital, I’d never be able to get out of that debt. So getting sick isn’t an option.”
It’s Jae’s hope that the campaign will provide $1,000 each to the 13 employees who have been laid off, since the $1,200 stimulus checks coming from the U.S. government won’t cover most people’s rent in San Francisco. (Some of her coworkers pay $2,000 a month for an apartment.)
What’s more, Jae says, many bartenders don’t claim cash tips and proudly have never applied for unemployment because they’ve never had to. After all, there’s always a bar that will hire you if you have skills, she explains, adding that she’s bartended in multiple countries because she could step behind a bar to muddle some cocktails. “Also, I have friends who work at bars that pay in cash and don’t keep employees on the books,” she adds.
For Jordan Ingram, a 34-year-old bartender at Mimi’s in the Marigny in New Orleans, whose GoFundMe has raised merely $500 of a $40,000 goal to benefit out-of-work bartenders in the neighborhood, state benefits are negligible anyway. “I make $2.13 an hour, so I get 22 bucks a week from unemployment. No one can live on that.” (Ingram, a passionate vinyl collector, will send donors a record from her personal collection as a thank you.)
Another side of the unemployment conundrum, Grenier adds, is the massive amount of undocumented laborers in bars and restaurants, for whom government subsidies aren’t an option. Undocumented people, the engine of bars and restaurants, can’t apply for state subsidies or are too scared to try. Dayri Garcia, a 31-year-old who manages the Bang Bang Kitchen in South Seattle, explains he started a GoFundMe to benefit his 20 coworkers, especially his undocumented dishwasher. “He’s got kids and can’t apply for unemployment and won’t be getting the $1,200 check either,” Garcia tells me, adding that Bang Bang will hopefully be able to reopen eventually. But he repeats that it’s “a real struggle” for most of them to make ends meet right now.
“GoFundMe is really the only thing some people have, man. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with not having enough food this week,” he says.
Douglas Turbush, the 47-year-old chef/owner of Seed Kitchen & Bar, Stem Wine Bar and Drift Fish House & Oyster Bar in Marietta, Georgia, commiserates, calling it “probably the worst week of our lives,” after having to lay off 100 employees. Restaurants run on the slimmest of margins, he explains, and he ultimately decided to completely close down in order to preserve capital since he didn’t have a robust takeout-and-delivery operation. Besides, he notes, “There’s not a ton of people ordering a $35 grouper in Georgia.”
With an abundant GoFundMe campaign, which has raised $45,800 of a $30,000 goal, Turbush intends to first hand every employee a $575 check to get them through another week or two, “until we have a better grasp of what they’re doing in Washington.”
Alas, many are doing exactly the same thing in the nation’s capital. Rachel Sergi, chief bartender at Next Whisky Bar at the Watergate Hotel, started a GoFundMe to benefit her 10 whiskey connoisseurs, explaining she felt the need to “take it upon myself to do this for my team.” (Sergi’s health care was cancelled, with March 31st being the final day of coverage.)
Regulars are also taking matters into their own hands — a la Gerald Karam in Morristown, New Jersey, a 61-year-old retired AT&T executive. Karam is a very familiar face at Tiff’s Grill & Ale House in nearby Morris Plains, which he describes as “like going to Cheers.” And so, he took it upon himself to set up a GoFundMe for the staff, which has raised a quarter of its $10,000 goal. “People really treat you with love at Tiff’s,” he explains. “You know their families, and they know what goes on in your life and are the best listeners, short of paying someone a psychiatric fee to get advice. They’re an essential part of the community, and we need them to survive.”
Because, as Luke Taylor, a bartender at Nitehawk, a dine-in movie theater in Brooklyn, puts it, “We’re the dreaming people, the striving people, the laughing people. We’re painters, playwrights, comedians, dancers, animators, entrepreneurs, students, musicians, actors, drag queens, skate punks and amateur boxers. We’re immigrants, from Ecuador, El Salvador, Senegal, the Philippines and Iowa. We’re new fathers hoping to do it a little bit better. We’re old vets, cuts and burns writing their sentences over the tattoos on our forearms. We speak Creole, Spanish and Hindi. We work three jobs — babysitting, selling weed, teaching yoga, bartending at another restaurant, taking care of our little cousins. We’re working on master’s degrees and business plans. We’ve got schemes and big ideas, weird shows and poetry readings. That’s me, that’s my people, caught at a glance through swinging doors.”
Patrick, of Detroit’s Willis Show Bar, is even more stark in his assessment: “Imagine if all these bars and restaurants were gone for good.”