On most nights these days, across the windows of the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina and the Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, passersby can see a display of lights on the façades of each building in the shape of a heart. This, the hotel chain said, is a way to send a message of hope to all locals, including out-of-work hospitality workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the San Diego Tourism Authority, the hospitality industry employs 200,000 people and generates $11 billion worth of direct economic activity each year. Today, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, over 6,000 San Diego workers have reportedly been laid off. And, as per a mid-March article by the San Diego Workforce Partnership, an estimated 350,000 San Diegans were at risk of losing their jobs then, mostly in service sectors like hotels, restaurants and retail, as a result of the crisis.
Now, whether it is through inspiring messaging, initiatives to help them find temporary jobs, providing free meals and donating money to foundations that directly aid them, among other efforts, local businesses are helping displaced hospitality workers cope during this uncertain time.
When husband and wife duo Brittany Yeng and Steven Yeng, co-founders of Ocean Beach headquartered Skrewball Spirits LLC, realized the impact the restaurant and bar “dine in” closures would have on the local food service industry, the two immediately jumped into action.
“We knew we had to help our community and we had to do it fast,” said Steven Yeng. “Our family has been in the bar and restaurant industry for over 10 years and we were thinking about what we could do to provide the most impact to assist others.”
In response, the Yengs made a $500,000 commitment to the U.S. Bartender Guild National Charity Foundation for the “Bartender’s Emergency Assistance Program”, the COREGives (Children of Restaurant Employees) fund and the California Restaurant Association Foundation.
Yeng said the two donated $250,000 starting with its “SKREW COVID-19 Campaign”, a social campaign through which, for every social share, the company would donate $1 to the USBG National Charity Foundation. That garnered over 235,000 shares, he said. But the couple felt that still wasn’t enough, said Yeng. That’s when they decided to donate an additional $200,000 for the cause.
“We knew we had to do more,” he said. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to help everyone impacted in the bar and food service industry, including those so valued from the back of the house.”
Care Bag Disbursement Program
Additionally, Skrewball Spirits’ “Skrewball Cares” initiative has established a care bag disbursement program with essentials like peanut butter, bread, pasta, protein bars, bathroom tissue and other necessities, said Yeng. So far, it has conducted three distribution drives and has provided care bags to over 1,200 people in the community.
Alycia Harshfield, executive director of the California Restaurant Association, said Skrewball Spirits’ donations have helped the organization provide some sense of financial stability to many out-of-work hospitality workers in the area.
Grants to 129 Workers
“The Skrewball Whiskey donation of $100,000 to Restaurant Care for COVID-19 relief was around March 23 and as a result, we’ve awarded grants to approximately 129 cooks, servers and bartenders in San Diego County thus far,” she said. “The impact of Steven and Brittany Yeng’s generosity is a game changer for many who otherwise fall through the cracks during these unprecedented times.”
Judy Whitcomb, vice president of human resources for learning and organizational development at Vi at La Jolla Village, a senior living home which employs about 300, said the company has established partnerships with Hilton and Hyatt to help provide temporary jobs for hospitality workers that have been laid off. She said, in order to provide relief for current employees, the company is hiring 15% more than it normally hires during this time of year. As a result, it posted temporary positions for culinary, dining, housekeeping, maintenance and customer service, said Whitcomb, which Hilton and Hyatt are both sharing with its out-of-work staff.
“We have almost 150 people in the pipeline waiting to finish the employment process,” said Whitcomb. “We’ve seen an enormous surge in employment applications.”
Speaking of employment, Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in Rancho Santa Fe, which has temporarily closed as a result of COVID-19, has opted to pay its full-time and salary employees during this full one-month closure, including servers, cooks, housekeepers, front desk agents and more. In addition, all perishable foods such as milk, eggs, juices and produce at the property are being distributed to hourly employees, said a spokesperson, adding that it is also hosting weekly employee raffles, through which it gifts gas cards, grocery cards and more to one winner a week.
Pre-Made Dinners for Laid-Off Workers
Rise & Shine Hospitality Group is one of many San Diego-based restaurant firms that has stepped up to help the local hospitality community. The company is offering pre-made dinners for laid off workers at its Breakfast Republic Mission Valley location, according to founder and owner Johan Engman. The comfort meal dinners include meatloaf, roasted chicken, lasagna and shephard’s pie, among other menu items. The company is suggesting a $10 contribution, but, otherwise, the meal is free, said Engman. And, if a customer can afford more and decides to pay for an extra meal, Rise & Shine is paying it forward by giving the next laid-off worker that comes through its doors a meal for free.
“It’s always been my philosophy to help others when times get tough,” said Engman. “Although things aren’t ideal for us having to close a number of our restaurants, I recognize that there are a lot of people in way worse situations and doing what we can to help is what’s most important right now. I’m not sure exactly what the answer is to how we will pull through this in terms of the business, but for now I’m committed to focusing on helping others. The hospitality industry is a tight community, we’re all in this together and we’ll pull through this together.”
Nick Apostolopoulos, owner of 619 Spirits Distillery & Tasting Room in North Park, agrees. He is hosting a free industry night lasagna dinner, with the help of local companies Henebery Spirits, Inc., Seven Caves Spirits, Copper Collar Distillery and Malahat Spirits, to provide 100 displaced San Diego bar industry workers with a free meal.
“Having had to furlough most of our staff, we understand just how hard it is for hospitality workers during the shutdown,” said Apostolopoulos, “and especially for those who rely on tips to make ends meet. Offering a free meal every week isn’t much, but we wanted to try to do whatever we could to help out.”