By the time Stacy Seebode was let go from her job as Chef de Partie at New York’s L’Appart restaurant last Monday, she had already spent the week fielding panicked calls and texts from restaurant industry peers around the country. In Washington state, which was slightly ahead of New York in terms of its restaurant closures, unemployment claims had jumped 115 percent between March 7 and March 14. Claims across the country were up by 70,000, with so many coming in that the online application site was crashing. And empty restaurants were being asked to pay their sales tax payments to the government at the expense of the payroll checks owed to workers they had been forced to lay off.
“There was a lot of crying. I had so many people on the phone crying to me, devastated, because the business was completely wiped out in a matter of minutes,” says Seebode, who points out that there are over 250,000 restaurant and foodservice workers in New York City alone, and that such jobs made up 9% of employment in the state in 2019. She had little faith that she and her friends could afford their rents on unemployment — if they even managed to get it — and less faith that a stimulus would arrive in time. “So many industries are being affected,” she says. “And our current infrastructure for programs for this industry are lacking anyway.”
After a call to a lawyer and some heavy Googling, Seebode landed on the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an advocacy nonprofit that had established the Restaurant Workers COVID-19 Crisis Relief Fund to provide immediate assistance to those who have been laid off due to coronavirus closures. To help them vet and process applications, they had also partnered with the Southern Smoke Foundation, which was founded in 2015 by James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd to provide support to food and beverage industry workers — from farmers to truck drivers to sommeliers and barbacks — and therefore had a system already in place for getting money to people quickly. (Medical needs and the threat of homelessness are prioritized by a review committee, and amounts given are based on the specific crisis at hand.) “We’ve had 4,040 applications come in since March 12th,” says Kathryn Lott, executive director of the Southern Smoke Foundation. “By way of comparison, we had 189 come in after Hurricane Harvey. The food and beverage industry is not even paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s shift-to-shift.”
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Seebode, who worked in digital media for 11 years before going to culinary school, made it her mission to get the fund’s message out, using her Rolodex to find outreach partners like the Museum of Food and Drink (founded by Dave Arnold, with David Chang on the board) and Good Food Jobs. In the first week of its existence, the fund raised close to a million dollars, including a half-million dollar donation by Beam Suntory, the parent company of Maker’s Mark. “It gives me hope,” Seebode says.
To make a donation, please visit the RWCF COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.