Giving

The Drinks Community Steps Up for Hurricane Harvey Relief

Fund-raising efforts around the country show hospitality at its finest

FEMA member taking meals from an emergency response vehicle
Rockport, Texas. FEMACorps member Jennifer Kirby takes meals from an emergency response vehicle to give to those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Chuck Haupt of American Red Cross.

Hurricane season 2017 has so far been unprecedented, unfurling multiple storms that meteorologists have called once-in-a-hundred-year occurrences. But what isn’t unprecedented is how the beverage industry is responding to the damage done to Texas and its citizens. According to Vanessa Trevino-Boyd, the beverage director of Lakeside Country Club in Houston, “This is the hospitality industry, and it’s our responsibility to take care of [people] as best as we can.”

As the ravages of Hurricane Harvey are still being felt throughout Texas, and Florida braces for Hurricane Irma, the drinks community is banding together to raise funds for those affected and to restore operations at affected businesses. From Los Angeles to Toronto, fund-raising efforts are underway, by companies large and small.

Diageo is distributing food and hygiene products through its C.A.R.E.s campaign and You Give Goods, while at Republic National Distributing Company, a relief fund is in place to help its employees recover from Harvey-related flooding and damages. Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits is also providing assistance to its employees and their families through its SGWS employee relief fund, which has so far raised $125,000. Southern Glazer’s has said it will match donations up to $100,000. E. & J. Gallo Winery donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross to aid with relief efforts and assist affected communities, and will match dollar for dollar personal donations made by its employees through the company’s employee match program.

Bars, brands, and retailers are also contributing. In Toronto, Eric Brass, co-owner of Tromba Tequila, cohosted an event at the Drake Hotel that raised close to $5,000 for the Houston Food Bank. In Los Angeles, the Spare Room, helmed by Houston native Yael Vengroff, raised over $8,000 for Harvey relief at a recent fund-raiser. Closer to the affected area, Texas retailer Twin Liquors has pledged to match up to $20,000 in customer donations.

Houston bar owner Bobby Heugel quickly mobilized a plug-and-play fund-raiser using the hashtag #hurricaneharveywallbanger. Tapping Galliano for support, Heugel initially asked about 15 bars across the country to participate by serving their version of a Harvey Wallbanger and directing the proceeds to the Houston mayor’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. The number of participating bars has now swelled into the hundreds, and Galliano has said it will also donate proceeds from net sales for the entire month of September.

While Heugel notes that his bars—Anvil, Tongue-Cut Sparrow, and Better Luck Tomorrow, among others—were barely touched by the storm, they were closed for six days, which had a direct impact on the businesses and their staffs. “Between the six bars, I imagine we lost over $100,000 in sales,” Heugel says. “I wish I was wealthy enough to pay everyone for time lost, but that’s just not realistic.” He and his partners have committed to making loans and finding alternative housing as necessary for those bartenders and barbacks who were hit worst by the storm.

Another homegrown Texas brand, Tito’s, is partnering with the Red Cross to match donations dollar for dollar up to $50,000, and has marshaled its trucks to deliver necessities to affected families through the Austin Disaster Relief Network.

At Lakeside Country Club, the financial situation is both a whole lot worse and a little bit better. The club is still under six feet of water, there’s no telling when operations will resume, and inventory losses amount to $3,000 in cigars, $7,000 in beer, $40,000 in spirits, and $450,000 to $500,000 in wines that will all have to be disposed of when the water recedes. Fortunately, a comprehensive policy will also cover lost income for staff, so Trevino-Boyd plans to use this time for staff wine education since employees will continue to be paid until normal operations are restored.  

Restoring a sense of normalcy is the goal of the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program of the United States Bartenders Guild foundation, which grants bartenders—USBG members and nonmembers alike—funds to help them get back on their feet after a catastrophic event. Set up as a 501(c)(3) to serve as a clearinghouse for funds raised for bartenders, the foundation is dealing for the first time with an event of this scale. Personnel at USBG are now receiving and reviewing grant applications from bartenders. “In a couple of weeks or a month … these funds will come in very handy—[the bartenders will] have dollars in their pocket to help them get through the next stage,” says Mara Flynn, USBG’s public relations representative.

This next stage of help will also be made possible by widespread efforts like those undertaken by James Tidwell, founder of Texsom, and his team. “We are involved through donation and solicitation rather than physical relief efforts,” Tidwell says. “TEXSOM emailed our entire 10,000-contact list from around the world with information on how to donate to relief efforts. This was incredibly well received, as many people didn’t know how to donate.”

Along with donations, managers are reflecting on their operational choices during and after the storm. Steven McDonald, wine director at the Texas-based steakhouse Pappas Bros., notes, “The company showed great leadership and compassion. They closed all the restaurants from the Friday before the storm.” To ensure staff and customer safety, he says, “we didn’t reopen until Thursday after it had passed. For the few of our stores’ staff that suffered loss, we are taking collections and donations for specific things they need. And people are helping with their own labor and time for cleanup and demolition.”

McDonald continues, “We wanted to make sure we opened as soon as it was safe. … We wanted to be a place Houstonians could come and try and get back to normal.” The company is also matching donations taken at the restaurant, up to $500,000, in order to raise a million dollars for relief.

Donations from around the industry, at every level, will contribute to helping thousands of individuals and businesses recover and rebuild. Heugel, for one, is heartened by the outpouring of support. “In Texas, and in Houston specifically,” he says, “we value people who are supportive of the state, and we don’t forget things like this easily.”

Francine Cohen is a New York-based consultant as well as the founder and Editor in Chief for Inside F&B, an online magazine for the hospitality industry. You can reach her at francinecohen@mindspring.com and francinecohen@insidefandb.com.

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