Negroni Week News

Fundraising Spotlight: Bartenders Benevolent Fund

September 4, 2020

Launched in Toronto in 2013, the Bartenders Benevolent Fund was founded by three veterans of the hospitality industry who simply wanted to provide support to their colleagues in an industry that historically lacks a safety net. But when COVID-19 necessitated the closure of bars and restaurants across the globe, BBF faced an exponential increase in requests for help, and the organization quickly pivoted to expand their reach to all of Canada. We spoke with co-founder Jon Gray about the organization’s expanding mission and what he hopes to see for the future of hospitality.

Imbibe: When you initially founded Bartenders Benevolent Fund with Andrew Toplack and Jonathan Humphrey, what was the mission and why did you feel it was a needed resource for the industry?
Jon Gray: Andrew and Jonathan had just returned from Tales of the Cocktail, where they had attended a seminar hosted Dushan Zaric of Employees Only. In it he mentioned that a small portion of all the tips earned from each service are put to one side, and if any team member needed it for anything—an operation, or to cover some bills—they had a support fund there. Inspired by this, once they returned to Toronto, they hosted a “Bartenders Appreciation” night, where they took a guest bar shift at The Drake Hotel and put their tips into an account that would be used for bartenders in need. The night was a huge hit.

At the time, I was managing the bar at a supper club on Toronto’s King Street. A server who worked with us had fallen down some stairs on the way to a washroom at a local bar. He hit his head on the bottom and broke his neck. Fortunately, he fully recovered but was out of work for six months. I realized that if that had happened to me, I’d have had to give up my entire life and move back home, being from England. It would have turned my world upside down. I took this situation to heart in a big way and realized just how vulnerable every member of the hospitality industry is; if you cannot work, you don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that.

I joined Jonathan and Andrew in thinking this is exactly what the industry needed, so I asked to join them in this mission. We set up the Bartenders Benevolent Fund up as a nonprofit organization and gave money to a few local bartenders dealing with illness and injury, and who were facing uncertainty in paying their rent or bills. We just wanted to do something to provide some level of security to the outstanding hospitality professionals around us who gave us so much, but happen to work in a profession that falls way short of protecting its employees’ wellbeing.

How has the impact of COVID-19 shifted the priorities of BBF?
COVID-19 shifted our focus in a huge way. We always hoped that we could turn this resource into something bigger, that could both help more people and also have the reach to find those that need help the most. But the demands of our day-to-day roles, and the intermittent calling to action of our fund meant that we could never really find the time to plan and implement this growth. COVID changed that. We sat down for an emergency meeting in mid-March and realized that things were about to become very different. We decided our resource would be needed now more than ever, and agreed to make the fund provincial, so that we could reach the bartenders and servers in other cities in Ontario like Ottawa and London. We always had great relationships with spirits brands, so when one came to us early on and asked if we could extend to a national reach, to distribute $25,000 in funding on their behalf, we had to have a second emergency meeting in a week. Although we were nervous and uncertain, we decided to rise to the challenge, and replicated the system we’d built in Ontario across the country to become a national entity. Over the next few weeks we raised a lot more money, and as the bars closed and uncertainty set in, we began distributing funds—up to $35,000 a week—to hospitality professionals in need across the country. The fund began to receive hundreds of applications each week—a huge increase from one request every few months! So far we have raised almost $500,000 from corporate and private donations to date, and have distributed $357,350 to over 1,100 applicants.

What do you see as the most urgent needs moving forward, and what gives you hope for the industry?
We are anticipating a second wave of shut-downs before things really go back to normal. We have already seen what that means for bars and restaurants and the people who keep them moving: they are the first to be affected, and some of the last to recover. We need to continue to support organizations such as the BBF in Canada, Another Round Another Rally in the U.S., and local initiatives like the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund.

Professionals in the industry have no support to fall back on besides volunteer run organizations like us. Employment insurance only looks at insurable earnings, usually just the below minimum hourly wage, which is a very small portion of a bartenders’ actual income when you work in a tipping culture. Sickness is frowned upon and sick pay is non-existent, as are benefits, holiday pay or any form of bonus structure. It continues to be an environment with punishing hours, where you’re expected to work through physical and mental illness, and cover every holiday, weekend and birthday. Hospitality professionals face unparalleled vulnerability in this system. So we’re always actively raising funds to make sure we are able to support when asked, because that’s when the need is the most. But long term we need to shift the hospitality profession to be more in line with other professions; breaking down this “first in, last out” culture, or the stigma of calling in sick. Employers need to start offering paid leave and benefits as all other employers do.

Now these conversations are happening, not privately but publicly and online. We watched an amazing talk recently where Iain Griffiths [Trash Tiki] addressed many of these pervasive issues within bar culture today. COVID is an opportunity for us all to pause, reflect and address. The more we all talk about positive change in our industry, the better we’ll all understand what we need to do to get there. Our fund and many like it, are run by wonderful, dedicated volunteers, and these support structures just didn’t exist before. But they will from now on; hospitality professionals have more support now than they did just six months ago, and the idea that we can keep that going, and build on it, gives me immense hope for the future of our industry.

Story by Penelope Bass