Lane V. Erickson/shutterstock

Lane V. Erickson/shutterstock

The barista who begins pouring when you catch his eye. The waitress who saves you the back booth. The line cook who understands the meaning of “over easy.” All of them—and an estimated 3 million of their colleagues—lost work when restaurants were shuttered in March. 

Even when stay-at-home orders are lifted, there’s no guarantee that their jobs will be waiting. Leading chefs like David Chang are sounding the alarm on the viability of the businesses they left behind. And three-quarters of restaurants closed by the pandemic say they’ll be unable to reopen after only two months without revenue. 

Meanwhile, federal interventions to help workers and small businesses bridge the crisis have gotten off to a rocky start. And although the ultimate extent of government aid—and insurance coverage—for impacted businesses is still up in the air, no one expects such assistance to go far enough to help the embattled restaurant sector.

Industry advocates, labor groups and philanthropy are stepping into the void, establishing funds to help workers buy food and cover rent in the expanding pause between now and the day doors reopen. Donations to these efforts have come from corporations, foundations and individuals. But the need for assistance has been so overwhelming that the majority of the funds have sporadically halted accepting new applications while working through backlogs. 

These six relief funds are currently wading through an avalanche of applicants, trying to get emergency resources in the hands of the industry’s most vulnerable

RWCF COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund

One of the first organized responses came from the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF), a national worker advocacy and action organization that launched the RWCF COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund in mid-March, just as governors were initiating shut-downs. RWCF partnered with Southern Smoke, an industry crisis relief organization, to direct funds three ways: 50% for direct grants to individuals, 25% to nonprofits supporting displaced workers, and 25% to provide zero interest loans to help restaurants “get back up and running.” Direct funding for individuals prioritizes people facing medical issues, or on the brink of losing housing, with grants averaging up to $2,000.  

Since the launch, the fund has raised $3 million from all over the country, almost a third of which came from corporations in the food and beverage industry, including Bacardi, TripAdvisor and Tito’s Handmade Vodka. The balance mostly came from small family foundations, donor advised funds and ActBlue, the nonprofit fundraising software organization. It’s also benefiting from industry fundraising efforts like weekly auctions from major wineries.

ROC United

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit that works to improve wages and working conditions for restaurant workers across the U.S.—both documented and undocumented—also established a ROC Relief Fund. After receiving 10,000 applications in the first two weeks, the initial fundraising goal of $500,000 quickly expanded to $3 million, to be distributed in increments averaging between $100 and $300. Boosted by support from ROC Action and a base of private donors who’ve mostly worked in the industry and recognize an “altruistic initiative for millions of workers out there,” the goal has slowly but surely reached the halfway mark.

As of early April, new applications are paused while ROC United’s 200 employees work through the first wave of applications. To break the bottleneck, it’s tapping student volunteers to help with the processing, screening applicants for priorities like dependent care, unemployment eligibility, and urgent needs like eviction notices. Meanwhile, 5,000 would-be applicants haunt the site daily.

One Fair Wage

One Fair Wage (OFW), which advocates for workers who live on tips, launched a One Fair Wage Emergency Fund to provide emergency cash assistance to employees like restaurant workers and delivery drivers. The fund started with a goal of $213,000, echoing the federal tipped employee minimum wage of $2.13 an hour, with plans of giving each qualified applicant $213. Results have far exceeded expectations. Operating as a fiscally sponsored project of Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society, the fund has raised $1.5 million to date from approximately 3,500 donors, including Andrew Yang’s new nonprofit Humanity Forward, the Bernie Sanders campaign’s COVID-19 fundraising, and a $250,000 commitment from Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield and Away co-founder Jen Rubio, via the Rubio Butterfield Memorial Foundation. Any unused funding will go toward tipped-worker organizing and advocacy. 

National Restaurant Association Employee Relief Fund

On April 1, the National Restaurant Association launched a Restaurant Employee Relief Fund that’s distributing small grants to workers through its educational foundation, NRAEF. It will push one-time stipends of $500 to food service workers who’ve experienced wage or job loss after working at least 90 days during the past year, covering basic needs like rent, groceries and medical bills. While kicking things off, celebrity chef Guy Fieri said its site had 4 million hits the first morning, crashing its website, and announced a fundraising goal of $10 million. After receiving a $5 million matching gift from Uber Eats, it’s well on its way to achieving that. Within a week, the fund received 10,000 completed applications, and closed to new submissions while it works to get the first round of grants out the door. Beginning April 9, it promised to re-open registration and accept 20,000 new applications.

The James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Relief Fund

The James Beard Foundation, the nonprofit that celebrates the best in American food culture, met its community’s dire situation by creating the JBF Food and Beverage Relief Fund, which is providing $15,000 micro-grants to independent food and beverage businesses across 12 geographic regions. Within hours of opening, the response from restaurants was so robust that JBF was forced to post a message saying it had suspended applications. Fundraising continues, but it will only reopen the application process if proceeds are greater than the needs of the existing pool of qualified applicants.

Another Round Another Rally

Another Round Another Rally (ARAR), a nonprofit that funds scholarships and emergency assistance for the hospitality industry, is providing $500 relief grants to workers who lost their jobs or had their hours slashed. Applications to date have topped 55,000, and ARAR paused new applications on weekends to allow staff time to prioritize and process what’s already in the queue. Despite big donations like $1 million from Campari, which also mounted a virtual tip jar fundraising campaign for bartenders, the need far outpaces resources. 


In addition to these emergency funds, the Ford Foundation is overseeing an emergency relief effort that will channel $20 million to restaurant workers in New York City. The funds are being contributed by an anonymous donor; Ford is paying program and administration costs to get money out the door. We’ll share more details about this grantmaking when we have them.

The precarious position hospitality workers find themselves in isn’t going away. An estimated 5 to 7 million are expected to be sidelined in the coming months. Now, in the first phase of disaster relief, fundraising efforts for immediate needs typically draw peak donations and public support. But once that subsides, low-wage industries will need foundations that work in labor and workers rights to step up to address short-term recovery, and long-term stability. 

The Irvine Foundation is making the right moves in that direction, creating a $22 million Recession Resilience Project to protect and advance low-wage laborers in California. Twenty million will be invested in the core grantees it considers critical partners in that work, supporting immediate emergency funding, technical assistance for financial planning and recovery, and longer-term strategic recession response. Beyond its existing partners, Irvine is also providing $2 million for grassroots organizations while reducing restrictions on new grants.

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