The New Normal: Feeding Hospitality Workers in Need

You can donate to a cause that helps feed the unemployed.

By Samantha Dorisca April 10, 2020

The order imposed three weeks ago to end dine-in service at restaurants across the city affected thousands of hospitality workers. While businesses are in danger of shutting down, many front- and back-of-house workers have been either laid off, furloughed, or seen a considerable reduction in pay.

Efforts across the city continue to raise money for or provide meals to these workers. Some, like the work being done by Berg Hospitality Group, are coming from the businesses themselves. Then there’s the collective model, exhibited by Houston Shift Meal, which is providing meals for unemployed hospitality workers.

Both efforts, assembled quickly, symbolize the new normal in the Houston food and drink scene.

Berg Hospitality Group, which operates B&B Butchers and Restaurant, B.B. Lemon, B.B. Italia, and the Annie Café and Bar and Turner's, was reminded of Houstonians’ generosity at a barbecue drive-thru hosted over two weekends in March. The effort, at which more than 1,000 pounds of ribs, wagyu hot dogs, and other meats were smoked, was designed to raise money for the company’s more than 400 employees.

Berg says that while most of his restaurants are offering to-go meals, that probably doesn’t even encompass 10 percent of the company’s usual profit. Since his restaurants rely on immediate profit to run smoothly, and since 80 percent of hourly worker pay comes from gratuity, Berg says he had to furlough most of his employees.

“We use tomorrow’s money to pay for things yesterday, so we do not necessarily have cash on hand,” he says. “The other factor is tips for employees—I can't pay them what they would have gotten in tips. A lot of people's incomes come from gratuity.” 

Customers waited in line for more than two hours to secure a plate of food and placed donations up to $3,000.

“It was incredible, just looking at the cars of people not worried and waiting,” says Berg. “It really is touching. A lot of our staff showed up to support and they were in shock.”

The company was able to raise more than $60,000 for its employees within two weekends.

Founders of Houston Shift Meal sommelier Cat Nguyen and publicist Jonathan Beitler are collecting sponsorships to create meals for industry workers without income. They initially started the effort during Hurricane Harvey to feed individuals who were displaced, and they saw a need to reignite their efforts and pull their resources for the hospitality industry once again. 

Companies or individuals can place a donation, and every $250 raised will go toward making 50–75 free meals for hospitality workers in need.

People can also donate fresh produce, meat, or dairy products to Houston Shift Meal—just fill out a form on its Facebook page, and a member will be in contact to tell you the drop-off point, a move that reinforces and adheres to social distancing practices.

“We also want people to share what we are doing to their friends and family in the hospitality industry, because we are a resource for them. This is our family,” Beitler says. “These are the people who feed us, and so we want to make sure that they themselves don’t go hungry and that they do not have to think about where their next meal comes from. We want their resources and energy to go towards paying their light bill or rent.”

If applying to get meals from Houston Shift Meal, Beitler says you’ll be asked a few questions, such as where you are or were employed.

“We have had people from line cooks at McDonald’s to assistant general managers of some of the finest dining restaurants in the city,” Beitler says. “One of the themes with this crisis is, it does not discriminate and it certainly doesn’t in the industry, either. We are just happy that people are able to support our cause financially and we are able to have restaurant partners who want to give back to their community.”

Local restaurants have been integral parts of our lives, whether backdrops for special events or places to gather with friends or to see friendly faces. As donations roll in, folks like Berg and the Houston Shift Meal community are finding that holds true for many Houstonians.

“Everyone is in a different position, but the amazing thing is the people of Houston will come out and support you,” he says. “You saw it in Harvey, and you see it now. People are loyal here; it is incredible.” 

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