Virtual tip jar, GoFundMe & community support: Athens dining industry fights to stay solvent

COVID-19, Athens,

Source: Online Athens

In a voluntary effort to combat coronavirus spread, Athens restaurants and bars confront weeks-long closures or reduced customers. But taxes, invoices and loans must still be paid. And many hospitality workers now face a total loss of income.

Some Athens restaurants are turning to online fundraising efforts to stem the fallout. Doing so is not a total fix, restaurant owners said, but part of a menu of approaches to address a difficult problem.

Owners and employees at restaurants, coffee shops and bars like the Globe, 5&10, Hendershot’s, home.made and the World Famous have opted for fundraising campaigns on GoFundMe, a method popular with nonprofits and people with large medical debts, to help laid-off employees, pad payroll and meet debt obligations.

“The reality is people don’t understand the razor thin margins that restaurants operate under,” said Mimi Maumus, owner of home.made on Baxter Street, which has dropped dinner service and increased to-go options. Profits are slim, and savings dwindle quickly.

These business owners do not ask for help lightly. But the coronavirus pandemic comes at an especially inopportune time, Maumus said, following spring break, a notoriously slow period for restaurants in Athens, and just after quarterly tax payments.

After meeting with her bank and applying for Small Business Administration loans, the available financial bandages wouldn’t arrive fast enough, Maumus said. The last option was to “expose the public to their dire situation” and launch a crowdfunding campaign. She’s trying to raise $75,000 to cover paychecks owed to employees and fixed expenses during this period of low sales.

Many businesses are asking for donations as an emergency fund for employees, in addition to the unemployment benefits they are eligible for if laid off.

Seth Hendershot, owner of Hendershot’s on Prince Avenue, is asking for greater help, like Maumus. People who donate to the Hendershot’s GoFundMe will receive gifts, like free music lessons or free drip coffee for a year, depending on the amount donated.

Athens restaurants are not alone. The hospitality industry around Georgia and the nation is turning to efforts like GoFundMe to brace for losses. In Atlanta, restaurants like Elmyr and Victory Sandwich Bar launched crowdfunding efforts for employees. In Philadelphia, lauded Italian eatery Pizzeria Beddia has asked for $125,000 via GoFundMe, which owners say will cover two months of payroll.

In Georgia, service limitations on bars and restaurants remain voluntary for now, per Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders. An increasing number of state governments around the country have ordered restaurants closed entirely or had services restricted. The impact is already large. According to an estimate by the New York City comptroller, restaurant sales in New York are expected to decrease by 80% during the pandemic.

Diners in Athens are finding novel ways to support their favorite bars and restaurants. Worried about the extended impact of the pandemic on Athens’ beloved service industry, one patron organized a “virtual tip jar” for bartenders and servers.

Inspired by a similar effort in Washington, D.C., Jennifer Douberly created an online spreadsheet called the Athens Virtual Tip Jar where service industry workers can post their handles for Venmo, Paypal or CashApp — which are smartphone-based methods to transfer money without a service fee — to receive virtual gratuity from customers.

People can offer their favorite bartender a tip while sheltering-in-place, or send money to a beloved waiter whose restaurant has temporarily closed, by phone instead of in-person.

“I found myself going out last weekend just to make sure I tipped everyone because I could feel it getting sort of dire out there,” said Douberly, an audiologist at ENT of Athens. “After some thought, and seeing that things are going to be weird for some time, I thought it might be nice to throw tips from a night out at my friends and family in the service industry, even while we stay in.”

Service workers can add their information to the Athens Virtual Tip Jar by filling out a Google form that Douberly manages.

Service workers need support because they “don’t always have a back-up plan,” Douberly said. Their jobs often don’t offer benefits, paid time off or vacation days, she said, which leaves them vulnerable during a crisis.

“If we lose these people, we lose a big part of Athens’ soul,” she said. “It’s the right thing to do. We have to look out for each other where we can.”

Fears about the future can’t be avoided, but Maumus is choosing optimism.

“As divided as we’ve all been as a nation, [the situation] is bringing out the best in people. It’s bringing out the best in me,” Maumus said. Reaching out to the public for help wasn’t an easy decision to make for Maumus. Hopefully home.made stabilizes financially, but the outpouring of emotional support from customers has moved her.

“If I’m going to lose my business, I’m thankful I get to experience this before it goes,” Maumus said.