Essential Workers: Drink Pros Bring Hospitality to the Pandemic Front Lines

How beverage and restaurant workers are using their well-honed hospitality skills to provide transformative relief efforts

Photo courtesy of No Us Without You.

The Silver Lyan bar at the Riggs Hotel in Washington, D.C., was five weeks old when COVID-19 hit. Newly laid off, its general manager, Morgan Stana, and her partner, Mike Alves, started scheming. “We were figuring out how we could help our community in food and beverage,” she says. Their solution was obvious: “We feed people. That’s what we do.” 

The couple launched Friends and Family Meal, providing 300 to 500 weekly CSA-style food boxes to out-of-work restaurant and bar staff. By leveraging relationships with farmers, the organization supports the restaurant supply chain as well. “It was a natural progression of our connections,” says Stana.

This D.C. duo is but one of countless examples of hospitality professionals who dove into relief efforts to help those affected by the pandemic. Across the country, many industry members have set up initiatives to feed unemployed or frontline workers, from Project Paulie in Boston (created by Nicky Bandera, a brand ambassador for Tequila Tromba) to No Us Without You (founded by partners Damián Diaz and Othón Nolasco of the Los Angeles–based bar and beverage consultancy Va’La Hospitality). 

Others have gone beyond the kitchen, like former Hanger One distiller Caley Shoemaker, who started making masks to support New Mexico’s Pueblo Relief Fund, or Manhattan beverage pros Joanna Carpenter and Cameron Shaw, who launched 86 the Barrier, which seeks to dismantle the language barriers that keep immigrants at the bottom of the restaurant workforce.

With many bars and restaurants shuttered for good and others revising business models for pandemic-era dining, the world of hospitality is changing. And beverage experts’ charitable projects promise positive transformation: more equity, justice, and civic-mindedness, as well as a new philosophy of what it really means to be hospitable. Akin to a movement, their collective energy is fueled by the hospitality skills and ethos that drinks pros have honed throughout their careers. 

Trained for this Moment

“One of the key pillars of the hospitality industry is you have to be hospitable,” says Ilegal Mezcal’s New York sales manager Herminio Torres, founder of the COVID-19 relief efforts HospUnited which then became Humans4. “It teaches you to be kind to someone, to actively listen and give back.”

Nikki Bandera. Photo courtesy of Project Paulie.

Chief among those tools are people skills. “The most beautiful thing about being a bartender is that you get these opportunities to be a part of the guests’ best and worst moments,” says Nikki Bandera, whose Project Paulie fed hundreds of laid off industry workers with homemade lasagna. “There’s no difference for me [now], getting my game face on and being there when things are tough.”

Like others, Stana and Albes tapped the network they’ve cultivated in their careers to make big things happen on a shoestring. “Being in the industry has helped us be nimble and find solutions. We got off the ground with donations from liquor reps who said, ‘I can give money because I have a budget but no way of spending it,’” says Stana. A local restaurant lent them operational space, and other restaurants serve as pick-up locations. 

The operational experience of working in restaurants translates to relief work as well. “We feel that this is what our hospitality career was gearing up for: to push forward with 16-plus-hour days to help provide food security for as many families as we could,” Diaz and Nolasco say. “We have used every aspect of operations and communications to scale our initiative up.”

No one understands the importance of those skills as much as Andrew Wooldridge, who put the operational experience gleaned working his way up from dishwasher to sommelier to use at World Central Kitchen (WCK). “Chef [Matt Adler] told me to create a front-of-house plating and logistics system that could handle up to 25,000 meals a day,” says Wooldridge, who previously worked at Officina in D.C. Using facilities at Washington National Stadium, Wooldridge and his team of 28 assembled food cooked by WCK kitchen staff for COVID-safe distribution, cranking out 4,000 meals per hour. 

“How do you streamline, dial in, focus, work on logistics, and disassociate yourself, knowing you’re thinking of fractions of a second?” asks Wooldridge. “Every meal you’re producing and second you’re saving could be one hungry person that is going to have a meal that day.” 

The WCK initiative, which ended on August 31, met Wooldridge’s desire to serve people—a reason, he says, he became a sommelier. But it also honed his leadership and logistics skills and gave him new expertise. His experience highlights how humanitarian work benefits the drinks pros who engage in it.

“It helps me as much as it’s helped everyone else,” says Bandera. “Being in this industry and watching all this go down, it’s so scary. But being of service did something so wonderful for myself and my family.”

Feeding Their Own

When Mandi Nelson lost her job as European Cellars’ regional sales manager, she “wanted to help out. I didn’t want to stay at home not doing anything,” she describes. Finding inspiration in a similar effort in Houston, she started Austin Shift Meal. Once a week, 50 to 70 out-of-work industry folks who sign up through her website pick up a “goodie bag” containing four or five meals from area restaurants. Paid for with grants, donations, and liquor company support, the bags are often themed: Black-owned restaurants with drinks from a Black mixologist; eateries owned by members of women’s hospitality association, Les Dames d’Escoffier

Like Nelson herself, many out-of-work industry members are looking for ways to give back; some recipients are also her volunteers. “This is one day of the week to come out of the house and have social interaction,” Nelson says. 

Undocumented bar and restaurant workers are the target demographic for No Us Without You. Without access to health insurance or government assistance, this population is especially vulnerable during the pandemic. Said founders Damián Diaz and Othón Nolasco via email, “Imagine barely making ends meet when you worked two or three jobs and now having no income for six months. How do you ever get out of debt? They will not have to buy food if we have anything to do with it.”

Damián Diaz. Photo courtesy of No Us Without You.

The duo started with their own money, feeding 10 families they knew through work, and ramped up to 1,100 families a week. Each relief kit contains 100 pounds of food like beans, rice, and fresh produce. Diaz and Nolasco say that feeding a family for a week their way costs only $33; they’re projecting an increase to 2,000 families by December, which they will support with aggressive fundraising. 

Language Justice

While many of these groups are working to aid the crisis that hospitality workers are facing right now, beverage consultant Joanna Carpenter and bar manager Cameron Shaw saw an opportunity to tackle systemic issues within restaurant and bar communities. They launched 86 the Barrier to “de-colonize language in hospitality” to give all workers “equal access to professional growth and financial independence.”

“The hospitality industry is built on exploited labor, especially the massive immigration markets,” says Carpenter, who was building the bar programs at Madison Square Garden when the pandemic hit. Her Chinese immigrant relatives established a foothold in the U.S. through restaurant ownership, but today, that avenue is open to few. “I’ve had conversations with people who talk about how hard it is to move up in a restaurant if they have no English skills. And when the doors reopen post-COVID and we’re all flooding to job interviews, it will be the people that speak English who get first priority, because owners don’t build in language skill development.”

Because most English as a Second Language courses are either too expensive or conflict with work hours, few restaurant workers can access training. Traditional language classes also lack relevance for hospitality workers. “If you’re working two or three jobs, you don’t have time to take a class that will take over a year to get to the word ‘spatula,’” says Shaw, who ran cocktail programs for the Black Tap Group.

Cameron Shaw. Photo courtesy of 86 the Barrier.

So 86 the Barrier has come up with an alternative: peer-to-peer training over Zoom or WhatsApp that’s geared toward acquiring the English skills to “get to know your co-workers, so they can see you and value you,” says Carpenter. With the help of six bilingual volunteers from the industry, Shaw and Carpenter have launched a six-week curriculum. They’re also working on a certification program to train business owners to align hiring and promotion processes with equity goals, and educate staffs in functional Spanish to establish reciprocal responsibility for communication in restaurants.

“There is nothing wrong with our colleagues who are not English speakers,” says Carpenter. “The goal is to not to change them but to arm them with tools to navigate an unjust work system and arm our workplaces to live up to the values that we say we have.” 

Serving the Neediest

Given widespread financial stress, some pros are supporting populations outside of the hospitality community. Caley Shoemaker, who now works for Doozy Solutions, which makes systems management software for distilleries, was designing and sewing masks for loved ones when she was “overwhelmed with requests from friends and friends of friends.” Living in Santa Fe, she saw how the pandemic disproportionately affected the Native community. So Shoemaker started selling her masks for $12 each, which covered her $3.50 in costs and allowed her to donate the remaining money to the Pueblo Relief Fund. 

It is her way of reaching across cultures through traditions, somewhat akin to her distilling career. “When I moved to New Mexico, I was not blind to the fact that we are living on land that belonged to someone else,” she says.

When Herminio Torres, a senior marketing manager for Ilegal Mezcal, heard that staff at the Bronx’s Lincoln Medical Center was surviving 20-hour shifts on peanut butter and jelly, he teamed up with his brother Alejandro, owner of Brooklyn’s El Gallo Taqueria, and delivered burritos to the medics. Thus was born HospUnited. In three months, Torres dropped off 25,000 meals (mostly donated by restaurants) to workers at seven New York medical facilities. Ilegal Mezcal helped fund and market the effort as well.

In June, with the ebb of New York City’s coronavirus curve, Torres morphed HospUnited into a new organization, Humans4, partnering with the non-profit Mixteca Organization to feed Brooklyn’s undocumented Latinx population. It’s work informed by his own background. “I’m a first-generation Mexican-American. My parents immigrated here in the late 1980s. We knew what struggle was like,” says Torres. “I have a job. I am not struggling, and I feel a moral obligation to do something.” 

A Positive Industry Transformation

The pandemic has illuminated the cracks within the hospitality industry itself. “We realized how vulnerable our industry is,” says Austin Shift Meal’s Nelson. “People live paycheck to paycheck, and they get one to two meals from their employer every day. With that gone, you realize how little they’re taken care of.”

None of these pros has too rosy a view of the milieu in which they’ve built their careers. “In the service industry,” Bandera says, “there’s been a lot of self-serving disguised as hospitality.” But a scene focused on celebrity bartenders and velvet-curtain speakeasies is changing in the wake of COVID-19. “I don’t know if there’s a need for the mixologist talking down to guests. The days of that are gone,” she continues. “It’s getting back to helping people and being honest.”

To that end, Wooldridge, though in talks with a few restaurants, is thinking beyond sommelier gigs. He’s exploring a winery harvest internship and considering more humanitarian work. “This pandemic has put much into perspective, including the self-indulgence of the food and wine world,” he says. “I’ve been working as a sommelier for years, but the moment this pandemic started, I asked myself, what can I do to take care of people?”

Photo courtesy of No Us Without You.

Like him, Diaz and Nolasco are rethinking their relationship to the industry: “We do plan on continuing working with brands and venues that are loyal partners,” they say. “But we have no plans of abandoning our newfound direction of service.” Indeed, they call No Us Without You “our current full-time career.”  For 86 the Barrier, the long-term goal is to find labor justice non-profits that can implement the language curriculum, with Shaw and Carpenter in consultancy roles. 

“I’m nervous about the future,” says Morgan Stana. “I still love what I do so much that it’s scary to consider that so many people are going to have to find something else to do.” Even if she goes back to bars, though, she’s not giving up on her new mission. “Handing out the food bags feels like a guest experience,” she adds. “You see people’s reactions, even while they’re wearing a mask, and it’s that process of serving someone and having that dialogue. It’s a different type of hospitality, but it’s still hospitality.”


Sign up for our award-winning newsletter

Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.

Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

Most Recent