Negroni Week News

Fundraising Spotlight: Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation

June 18, 2019

In 2016, John deBary and Alex Pemoulie shared a text message exchange questioning what they could do to connect and grow the power of the restaurant worker community. The two met while working at Momofuku in New York City, and although Pemoulie had since relocated across the country, they still viewed the strength of a united hospitality workforce as an untapped resource through which progressive change could be wrought.

“Obviously the restaurant worker community is very visible to most people,” says deBary, who had bartended at PDT and later served as bar director for the Momofuku restaurant group. “But conceiving of it as a group of people, like a segment of the population that has a specific set of concerns and needs, is probably not where it should be considering how many people work in the restaurant worker industry in the country and the challenges they’re facing.”

Three years after that initial text exchange, deBary and Pemoulie launched the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation (RWCF) with the goal of implementing and advocating for social justice and equity in the restaurant industry. Addressing structural and cultural issues—including wage fairness, gender equity, racial justice, and mental health support—that affect the lives of restaurant workers and perpetuate a cycle of low wages, poor job mobility and high turnover, the organization is devoted to building a sustainable industry that adequately supports the people that work within it.

Comprised of a 15-member board that includes industry heavyweights like Lynnette Marrero and Sother Teague, RWCF is poised to make a lasting impact. Though when it comes to organizing a community, the restaurant worker industry is a particularly tricky one. It is massive (in New York alone restaurant and foodservice jobs employ around 9 percent of the state’s population, a number expected to grow by nearly 6 percent in 10 years) and includes an incredibly diverse population. “We’re not an industry of people who all sit in and office and work 9 to 5,” deBary says. “There are people who work graveyard shifts, people who do work in offices, people with different levels of education, different class backgrounds, racial backgrounds. To get everyone together, there’s no existing framework for an organization [like RWCF] in the industry.”

Structured as a community foundation, RWCF works to raise money from people within the restaurant community then strategically deploy those funds to assist those without access to resources. As such, the organization’s budget is split into thirds: a third goes to advocacy efforts; a third to impact investing; and the final third to grant-making with the goal of building a network of likeminded nonprofits already doing work in areas RWCF aims to address.

RWCF’s founders see the restaurant worker industry as a powerful place to begin to confront problems faced on a larger scale. “A lot of the social justice issues that we face in the United States are magnified in the restaurant worker community,” deBary says. Their solution begins with providing people a fair and supportive place of work. “The healthier the industry, the better people are. They come to their jobs, they’re more effective, they stay for longer and it’s just better,” he says. As of now, RWCF is entirely volunteer-run, largely by deBary and his husband Michael Remaley, both of whom have full-time jobs. As deBary sees it, funds raised for RWCF through Negroni Week give restaurant and bar employees a chance to give back to their own. Though RWCF’s work is currently focused in New York, the organization serves as a hopeful blueprint for progress in the industry nationwide. “I think if you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere,” deBary says.

9/17/20 UPDATE: In March of 2020, RWCF established the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund that supports direct financial assistance to workers, grants to organizations providing relief work, and a zero-interest loan program to support small businesses.

Story by Emma Mannheimer // Photo by Sam Penix