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Every morning, Tony Mangiafico watches the texts roll in. Lunch for two people. A group of four. Dozens of singles.
These aren’t reservations. Along with every other restaurant in town, the chef and owner of Gratzzi Italian Grille in St. Petersburg was forced to close down last week, a state-mandated precaution to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
But Mangiafico is still cooking every day. And the messages he is receiving are from friends and former employees — bartenders and servers, hostesses, dishwashers, food runners. All people who have suddenly found themselves out of a job.
Instead of serving a downtown crowd dinners of veal piccata and beef carpaccio, Mangiafico now serves daily free lunches to-go for restaurant and hospitality workers. The meals change, depending on what he feels like cooking that day: lasagna or eggplant Parmesan, short ribs with mushroom risotto, pappardelle bolognese with bread and a salad.
Unlike some other restaurants that have stayed open but pivoted to takeout and delivery efforts in an attempt to stay afloat, Mangiafico closed his long-running restaurant last Thursday.
“My menu is so big — it doesn’t really pay off,” Mangiafico said. “I have the place, I have the food — I may as well just keep on cooking and feed them. As long as I can and as long as I have the money to do it.”
So far, the lunches have been a sell-out hit: Since starting, Mangiafico estimates he’s made upward of 500 meals, and has served restaurant and food service staff from roughly 90 different restaurants. He’s assembled the meals with the help of some of his longtime employees and some generous regulars who have offered up private donations.
The effort is part of a growing response from the local culinary community still grappling with the unprecedented crisis currently facing the restaurant and hospitality world.
Following orders by Gov. Ron DeSantis to close all restaurants and bars, tens of thousands of service and hospitality workers across the Tampa Bay area lost their jobs. On Thursday, new record-breaking figures for unemployment claims were released, citing more than 74,000 people in Florida and 3.3 million in the U.S.
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Last week, the president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association estimated that of the more than 1.5 million people who work in the state’s restaurant and hotel industry, only 200,000 to 400,000 are still employed.
In the wake of these staggering statistics and faced with an uncertain future, restaurant and bar owners have combined efforts to help hospitality staff who found themselves out of a job overnight. Celebrities and brands have pledged to help out, too: Actor Ryan Reynolds said he plans to donate 30 percent of the proceeds from Aviation Gin’s online sales to the United States Bartender’s Guild, and liquor giant Jameson recently pledged $500,000 to the same guild.
Like at Gratzzi, family meals and food delivery for out-of-work hospitality workers have been popular. Some restaurant and bar owners have forgone their own salary while trying to keep some of their employees afloat. And virtual tip jars, often in the form of online GoFundMe campaigns, have emerged as the go-to crowdsourcing model to provide relief from coronavirus-related costs.
At Casa Tina and Pan Y Vino in Dunedin, the proceeds from a virtual tip jar are divided among the staff of both restaurants based on the average number of hours each person worked a week. The restaurant is coupling the effort with a feel-good social media campaign where diners and staff can share “stories, laughs, inspirational thoughts and even virtual experiences.”
Similar campaigns have been started by restaurants like Mise en Place in Tampa and Punky’s Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg.
Jordan Newsome, a server at Caddy’s on Treasure Island, decided to start a GoFundMe campaign for the whole Tampa Bay service industry, drawing inspiration from a similar campaign in Los Angeles created for laid-off Hollywood support staff that as of Thursday had raised more than $350,000.
“It started off with the coworkers around me,” Newsome said. “One day we just got a phone call that said, ‘Hey we’re closed.' And I know a lot of people are working day to day and hardly making it.”
Newsome’s campaign asks that hospitality workers contact him and provide proof of former employment, after which they get put on a list to receive money in the order they signed up. Newsome is hoping to offer $200 to $400 per person.
Other methods of virtual tipping include online resources like Dunedin’s Just the Tip, a database created for Dunedin hospitality workers in which they can enter their name, place of work and Venmo or Paypal account information. The organizers then update the list daily on their Facebook account, where supporters can find their favorite service workers and tip them while they’re out of work.
While restaurants are still allowed to do takeout and delivery and some have been able to keep a small number of staff employed in the interim, the state’s orders have hit the bartending industry particularly hard.
Virtual speakeasies allow out-of-work bar professionals to live-stream bar “shifts” where sponsors help pay the host for the evening (around $100) and guests can watch from home, learning how to make their favorite cocktail and also tipping the bartender via Venmo if they wish. A recent speakeasy event featured Copper Shaker bartender Tony Finotti, who on Wednesday evening paired up with Horse Soldier Bourbon to host a session inside the yet-to-open Urban Stillhouse in St. Petersburg.
“Times are tough, so drinking does help,” Finotti quipped, while singeing an orange peel with a blowtorch and showing guests how to make a smoked Old Fashioned. Comments rolled in from viewers, asking questions that ranged from “what’s the right way to drink a medium quality scotch” to one person who mentioned that they were “checking in pantless.”
For his shift, Finotti was tipped roughly $200, plus the additional $100 shift pay supplied by Horse Soldier.
While fundraising efforts like these help, most in the industry agree they’re more akin to a bandage than a permanent solution — a temporary relief to help ameliorate some of the immediate economic shock and help foster a sense of ongoing community.
“I don’t know the longevity of interest that this is going to have,” said Brenda Terry, the president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild Tampa Bay chapter. “Is it going to make someone be able to pay their mortgage or rent? No, but at the end of the day it’s the little impactful things that we can do to lift people’s spirits.”
Terry said the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild is working on more virtual speakeasy events as well as partnering with local restaurants for future dinners with to-go cocktails.
“I think innovation is key here,” Terry said. “Bartenders and servers are going to literally have to rethink what they’re doing for a living right now.”
Despite all the local relief efforts, the consensus among bar and restaurant owners is that an economic bailout is needed to save the industry, and many business owners have spent the past few days aggressively lobbying their elected officials for help. On Friday, the House is expected to vote on a $2-trillion stimulus package, though how exactly that will be allocated to restaurant and hospitality workers isn’t yet clear.
“Our industry is on its knees right now,” said Geoff Luebkemann, the senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “Literally 100 percent of our effort is to advocate for a big and significant relief package from Washington. That economic might that legislation can bring is significant.”
"Like everybody, we’re trying to find a path for this,” said Leigh Harting, who together with her husband Mike runs 3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg.
The couple, who employ 57 people, have forgone their salary temporarily to help keep some of their staff employed. They also sent a letter to elected officials asking for significant relief measures, like tax breaks on payroll and excise taxes.
“Whatever is going to get the relief to individuals as quickly as possible,” Harting said. "We have to look at all the measures that are going to help open the relief valve.”
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