Putting The “Hospital” in Hospitality

What happened to GoFundMe campaigns that aimed to provide for restaurants and frontline workers at the same time?

To go food containers filled with pasta and labeled with kid's handwritten cards saying
Restaurant Olivia's namesake contributed to Feeding Colorado Heroes, too. / Courtesy Restaurant Olivia

A year ago today, newspapers were still explaining to a generally skeptical public exactly what “COVID-19” was, why we should all be washing our hands to the point of rawness, and why we shouldn’t view the emerging virus as a epidemiological event unique to Asia and Italy. We were even instructed not to bother wearing face masks (insert near-hysterical laughter here).

It seems we’ve lived a thousand years in the last 365 days. Restaurant owners and employees threw everything at the wall to see what would stick. One hallmark of last spring and summer? Restaurant GoFundMe campaigns raising money for everything from operational expenses to payroll to employee emergency funds.

A year later, there’s been next to no individual governmental assistance, and no industry-specific relief for restaurants. Colorado’s unemployment rate is triple what it was in February of 2020. One study reports two in five Coloradans are food insecure. With Congress unable to agree on a plan would put money directly into the hands of hungry un- and underemployed citizens, operations that pay restaurants to put food in the stomachs of hungry people have emerged from coast to coast (perhaps the best known is José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen). So what happened to similar Front Range GoFundMe campaigns that aimed to provide for restaurants and frontline workers at the same time?

“without [the GoFundme] we might not be here today. i’m just a single llc. i don’t come from a wealthy family. if you’d shaken my tree too much, it might have shaken up the roots.”

Wayne Shelnutt, Wayne’s Smoke Shack

Some are still active and accepting donations. Feeding Colorado Heroes was launched on March 20, 2020, by Prim & Co., a Denver-based PR firm; 100 percent of donations go to purchasing meals for hospital workers from local restaurants. In just shy of a year, the fund raised $95,000 and provided 6,727 meals.

Most of that was over the spring and summer. According to Prim founder Gretchen TeBockhorst, donations dropped sharply in late summer and early fall and haven’t really recovered. “It went from $1,000 [in donations] a day to a trickle,” she says. At its height, Prim was able to place five or six orders of $1,000 to $2,500 with local restaurants every day. Now, it’s about one a month. She acknowledges there was a “tiny bit” of a bump in donations in the fall when restaurants were shut down a second time, but the campaign didn’t regain its momentum, despite several large corporate donations. “Once hospital numbers started to drop off, people didn’t think there was such a need for it, even though restaurants still needed the help. It was old news.”

To-go meal containers with kid's handwritten thank you notes and drawings.
Restaurant Olivia gave frontline workers pasta, salad, chocolate chip cookies, and a little bit of love. / Courtesy Restaurant Olivia

Denver’s Restaurant Olivia received an order from the campaign last May. Partner Austin Carson says of that order, “[Its significance] was huge. It was very, very timely.” (Prim orders just once from every restaurant, choosing to spread the wealth between as many operations as possible.) “It was during the first shutdown and we were working off of to-go [orders only]. Our impetus was to keep as many people on staff as we could, and for the ones we had to let go, to keep feeding them.”

Zach Spott, chef and partner at Green Seed Market, which is located inside Denver Central Market, worked with Feeding Colorado Heroes as well as doing some hospital outreach of his own (his wife is an emergency room nurse, so he also provided meals for her department). “The injection of that capital during those days was pretty valuable,” he says. “We were just looking to pay for staff and food; we weren’t looking at rent.” That cost turned out to be about $1,000 per day, and by providing salads and juice to his wife and her co-workers, he was able to cover half of that relatively easily. And, of course, “It gave me a lot from the warm fuzzies perspective.”

Spott’s own hospital outreach has also slowed. Unlike Feeding Colorado Heroes, he didn’t see a bump in orders for frontline workers as COVID cases spiked and restaurants again shut down in November, even though, he notes, “From my wife’s perspective, November was worse across the board.”

Wayne Shelnutt, owner of Wayne’s Smoke Shack in Superior, initially went it alone when he launched a GoFundMe page for hospital relief last March. Because his business relied so heavily on corporate catering and nearby tech employees coming in for ‘cue at lunch, Shelnutt kept Wayne’s open for just a week after the March shutdown began before deciding something had to change. “I said, ‘Let’s not stop making food just because people aren’t coming here.’ I’m going to keep making food and feeding people, and have faith people will help.” Wayne’s went to being open only on Saturdays; the rest of the week, Shelnutt smoked meat and contacted hospitals from south Denver to Longmont. His team delivered lunch “to everywhere that would take food,” sometimes driving over two hours to make a single delivery.

Two men unloading pallets of to-go food containers off of a truck.
Wayne Shelnutt says he the GoFundMe campaign he started saved his business. / Courtesy Wayne’s Smoke Shack

The restaurant’s fundraiser garnered about $20,000 from March through early June; 70 percent of that went to feeding hospital staff, with the remainder going to rehiring staff, delivery expenses, and back into the business. Fron April to early July, Shelnutt also partnered with Feed the Frontlines Boulder. Because of his own fundraising efforts, Shelnutt says, it was a seamless transition. Wayne’s fulfilled Feed the Frontlines orders through the end of the summer. That partnership resulted in “a good bump” of about $4,000 per week (pre-COVID, the joint was pulling in between $5,000 and $10,000 weekly from corporate catering). In total, Wayne’s was able to provide over 5,000 meals to frontline workers.

Both the restaurant and Feed the Frontlines have stopped accepting donations, but Shelnutt credits his initial fundraiser as a catalyst of Smoke Shack’s growth over the past year. “It slingshotted us to where we are now,” he says. Without the experience of his own GoFundMe campaign and Feed the Frontlines, he says he wouldn’t have stayed in business long enough to benefit from the town of Superior’s Superior Cash program, a gift card program financed by the municipality that brought upwards of 50 new customers through his doors every day he was open in January of 2021.

About ten hospital workers wearing blue scrubs and holding salads and juice.
St. Anthony Hospital staff with a delivery from Green Seed Market. / Courtesy Green Seed Market

As to whether these kinds of models could work on a larger scale, as some operators have called for, Spott points to Great Plates, a California initiative that contracts with local restaurants to provide free meals to qualifying senior citizens. Businesses receive up to $66 per day to make and deliver up to three meals. “It seems so obvious,” says Spott. “It’s a form of government subsidy that supports people in different ways and keeps that restaurant in business.” Carson agrees: “It strikes me as a good idea given our experience with Prim and what they were able to pull together.”

Both Spott and Carson decided against any fundraising for operational expenses for their own restaurants. “We had those discussions, and we never felt fully comfortable with it,” says Carson. “Our situation is unique—as is everybody’s—but [my partners and I] put our heads together to try and reduce expenses so we could put more money back into the people who needed it. It’s a very different tone when a GoFundMe page goes up.” Spott echoes that: “Personally I’ve found creative solutions (capital injections to restaurants to help feed our frontline workers; the food drives in the parking lot of the Source on Sundays; Fresh Guy curating meal kits to deliver to every staff member at all their accounts; liquor brands doing meal sponsorships for furloughed workers) to be more valuable or more invigorating for our industry then a random sum of money generated on a GoFundMe Page and distributed to employees.”

When asked if he had any reservations about creating this kind of campaign, Shelnutt says, “I literally had blind faith. ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I knew if I put myself and my energy out there it would be reciprocated in one way or another.”

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