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Organizations are trying to help Miami's out-of-work hospitality workers.
Organizations are trying to help Miami's out-of-work hospitality workers.
Photo by Ruben Cabrera @rubenpictures

SOBEWFF, FIU, and Miami Chefs Provide Relief to the Hospitality Community

The coronavirus pandemic and its consequent shutdown of all restaurant dining rooms and bars across Miami and much of the nation have created a potential economic meltdown of the hospitality industry.

Forced to lay off staff, restaurants have either switched to takeout-only models or outright shuttered. Idled workers are reporting difficulties in filing for unemployment, and help from the federal government's stimulus plan is likely still weeks away.

Miami's culinary community, however, is stepping into the breach.

A group of Miami chefs led by Felix Bendersky of F+B Hospitality Leasing has set up the Miami Restaurant Employee Relief Fund on gofundme.com. That effort — backed by Brad Kilgore of the Kilgore Culinary Group, Michael Schwartz of Michael’s Genuine, Michelle Bernstein of La Trova, Michael Beltran of Ariete, and Zak H. Stern of Zak the Baker — has raised nearly $60,000 over the past week to aid Miami's restaurant and bar staffs.

And early this morning, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF) and the Florida International University (FIU) Chaplin School of Hospitality threw a lifeline to these displaced employees with a relief fund promising immediate financial support for workers at independently owned restaurants and bars affected by the pandemic in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

That fund launched with an initial $1 million in aid, with industry giants like Bacardi USA, Badia Spices, spirits distributor Luxco, Mast-Jägermeister US, Shaw-Ross International Importers, and Voli 305 Vodka pledging support. SOBEWFF chipped in $500,000 through FIU's Chaplin School, which is the festival's nonprofit beneficiary.

Brad Kilgore tells New Times the Miami Restaurant Employee Relief Fund was born after Bendersky, who specializes in restaurant real estate, asked him what out-of-work staff members would need immediately.

"I told him it was cash," Kilgore said.

The pair set out to create a simple system to get small grants of $250 to as many workers as possible without a lot of red tape. To qualify, one need only prove industry employment in Miami for at least two months prior to the coronavirus closures.

Bendersky reports that once chefs like Bernstein and Schwartz came onboard, the fund kicked into gear. "Once they joined us, the 'new guard' restaurants like Broken Shaker and 200 other restaurant owners asked how they can help."

The GoFundMe page has set a Miami-symbolic goal of $305,000, and Bendersky says about 800 people have applied for grants so far. "My arm is tired from writing checks," he says.

Adds Kilgore: "We wish we could do more, but if we can put groceries on the table or help pay a cell phone bill, it would be great."

Reached this morning by New Times, SOBEWFF founder Lee Schrager says $1 million represents only the first round of funding for his organization's relief effort.

Schrager says the fund stemmed from a conference call this past week that included Bernstein, Schwartz, Kilgore, and other big names in the South Florida culinary community.

Says Schrager: "They unanimously said their employees needed the help."

He says the fund will disburse money that is to go directly to employees and which allows for grants of $500 per employee and up to $15,000 per restaurant. "We just couldn't handle distributing thousands of checks to individuals," Schrager explains. "And this is how restaurant owners asked the funding be handled."

Initially, the fund will prioritize businesses that have participated in SOBEWFF during the past five years. After that, it will open up support to any independently owned and operated restaurant or bar in the tri-county area.

Schrager says the Chaplin School will handle the logistics. Once a restaurant is approved for a grant, workers should expect a turnaround time of 72 hours or less.

Additionally, grant awardees will have access to management training through the Chaplin School, as well as help from FIU's Florida Small Business Development Center. And when the government-mandated restrictions are lifted, recipients may also bring aboard up to two FIU interns at no cost to support their business operations.

Schrager says he's still making calls. Asked whether he had hit up liquor-distribution behemoth Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, he said that avenue will represent "the easiest money to get." (Last week the distributor pledged $1 million to help the U.S. Bartenders Guild navigate the pandemic.) Schrager says he plans to create a similar fund for New York City, where he's the founder of the New York Wine & Food Festival.

Donations and requests for funding from the SOBEWFF/Chaplin School fund should go to sobewff.org/industry-relief.

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