As restaurants nationwide are forced to limit service in response to the coronavirus epidemic, workers and owners face economic as well as emotional uncertainty. Our gem of a food town is no exception.
By the time Charlottesville announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 16, restaurants all over town were shutting down or moving to take-out only. At the City Council meeting that evening, several restaurant owners asked council to temporarily delay collection of the meals tax that came due on March 20. Councilors denied the request, but penalties for late payment have been suspended through May 31.
While the city searches for other ways to support businesses in the months ahead, Charlottesville community members have already responded, swooping in to help provide some financial assistance and morale boosters, with the hope of spurring others to do the same.
Kate Ellwood, former general manager at Citizen Burger Bar, launched the Charlottesville Restaurant Community Fund with a GoFundMe site to help raise money for workers who rely on tips to survive and low-wage hourly workers.
“I have a cousin who is a restaurateur in Boston, and seeing restaurants in these big cities shutting down, I figured it was only a matter of time before it happened to our community,” she says. “I reached out to [Citizen owner] Andy McClure, and ran it past him and he liked the idea, so I ran with it.
Ellwood set an initial goal of $10,000, and at press time the fund was well over $20,000. She plans to keep running it, and either continue to donate to other restaurant workers or offer money to other area organizations, such as the food bank. She’ll distribute funds to workers with crucial needs—those who have chronic illnesses or children who need emergency food, or people who could use help paying for their medication or housing. “Any bit of money will help right now in their situation,” she says. The grants will top out at $200 per person, and Ellwood reached out to restaurant owners to determine the recipients. “I’ve had owners and managers contact me to nominate staff who they think could most use it, so that’s been really helpful,” she says.
Beyond the financial support, Ellwood is also helping workers navigate daunting tasks like filing for unemployment. And, with the help of her training from the Community Investment Collaborative, she’s connecting other local businesses and organizations to create a large network that can help. Her efforts have earned her some national press attention, with Eater, Food & Wine, Imbibe, and Cherry Bombe magazines all spreading the word online.
Restaurants have scrambled to redefine themselves quickly in order to survive, many offering take-out and delivery services. And almost all eateries have expressed that the purchase of gift certificates is a great way to help them immediately.
Lampo Neapolitan Pizzeria has carryout service through online ordering. The Local and Junction are offering online orders with a Ten for Ten menu of comfort food items costing $10 (all proceeds go to The Local’s staff and the community). Tavola (co-owned by C-VILLE’s Culture editor Tami Keaveny) has shifted to retail wine sales and delivery, which wine director Seth Maynard says, “allows me to make the world-class wines on our list more affordable.” Seeing it as an opportunity to be creative, Maynard is offering several different themes for curated, mixed cases, including: Italian antiques (from classic Italian wine regions); What your parents drank (recognizable varietals and blends like Bordeaux); Wine that your kids drink (modern “hipster” wines from lesser known regions); and a dealer’s choice matched to a customer’s flavor profile.
Others have reluctantly shuttered their doors for now. Angelo Vangelopoulous, owner of The Ivy Inn, closed on March 15, and started a relief fund for his staff. “It became clear to me that people weren’t getting the message that social distancing is what we need right now, so I thought it best that The Ivy Inn family did its part to get the word out and show how important this is to our community and everyone worldwide,” he says.
Ellwood, meanwhile, hopes to launch a nonprofit to support the restaurant community in a more sustained way. “Doing something like this makes other people want to help,” she says. “It has a ripple effect.”
Paying it forward
While our local restaurant community is struggling, it is also pitching in to help others. Kathryn Matthews, owner of Iron Paffles & Coffee (and who is herself recovering from a major car accident that left her unable to work until recently), is helping to organize essential donations to those in need through the community website supportcville.com.
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, businesses across Charlottesville have taken a hit, especially the restaurant industry,” says Matthews. “The result has been an abundance of surplus food from canceled catering orders and lower-than-usual sales, which I couldn’t bear to waste. When I heard of other restaurants in a similar situation, I rallied the restaurant community together to donate their leftovers to low-income families.”
She says SupportCville is also looking for donations from the public of kid-friendly non-perishables, including canned fruit, granola bars, cereal, rice, pasta, peanut butter, and juice boxes, as well as financial donations.