Service! enters a new phase, eyes a better future for all restaurant industry workers

Andy Downing
Matthew Heaggans

Recognizing an immediate need, in Aprila small group of chefs and restaurateurs launched Service!, a nonprofit designed to feed the unemployed service workers laid off en masse as bars and restaurants shuttered or scaled back significantly in the wake of coronavirus-driven stay-at-home orders.

Chef and Service! president Matthew Heaggans described the six-to-eight weeks that followed as a whirlwind, with the team scrambling to prepare and distribute free daily dinners for service industry workers, eventually dishing up more than 10,000 meals. “We just felt like there was a thing we could do, so we jumped headfirst into it,” said Heaggans,who co-founded the charity alongside executive director Reed Woogerd, vice president Sangeeta Lakhani and treasurer Letha Pugh.

“We knew time was of the essence,” Pugh said. “Folks were hungry … and they really depended on these meals each day.”

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Pugh, co-founder of Bake Me Happy, said she initially entered into Service! with the idea that the team could fill a temporary need within the community and then walk away after businesses reopened. “But how can you walk away from someone who needs help?” said Pugh, who pointed to a June survey conducted by Service! in which restaurant employees detailed the financial strains brought on by COVID slowdowns, replying with stories of unpaid doctor bills and lingering concerns about making rent with federally bolstered unemployment benefits that were set to expire at the end of July.

“As the group, as a board, we started to feel like, ‘There is a void in this community, and the void around hospitality folks is a lot bigger than anyone might realize,’” said Pugh. “So we made a decision to continue to help where we could … and maybe lighten that load a little bit.”

While the demand for meals slowed as employees returned to work when bars and restaurants resumed operations, most in limited form, the nonprofit’s fundraising muscle, which initially caught its founders off-guard, left it sitting on a sizable sum. “In the very beginning, when we started this, I said, ‘OK, we could be doing this for two days or two weeks or two months,’” Heaggans said. “But then people really stepped up, financially being among those ways.”

After weighing its options, taking into account the results of the June survey, beginning in August the Service! team chose to offer industry workers access to microgrants in amounts up to $250. The first dispersal, totaling $3,000, went out Monday, and grants will be issued for the next seven weeks or until the $50,000 fund is exhausted. The money can be usedto cover rent or mortgage payments, health-related bills, grocery bills, bus passes and more, and eligible workers can apply

Heaggans and Pugh described the microgrant period as the second phase in what they view as an ongoing evolution for Service!, which might have been launched as a temporary venture but is steadily beginning to feel like a more permanent organization to its board members.

“We always want to take the pulse of the industry,” Pugh said. “We need to continue to ask how we can continue to be of service to the community, specifically in the restaurant industry. ... Maybe [Service!] could turn into some type of training program. I would love to see someone who started out in the industry, maybe as a dishwasher or server, who says, ‘You know, I have an interest in wine,’ and maybe we can provide them with a grant that allows them to become a sommelier.”

“A lot of other cities with robust food cultures have organizations like Service!, which exist to provide support and resources in an industry where people are vastly underpaid, under-supported and often with a lack of benefits,” Heaggans said. “There’s a fragility to the industry that I don’t think a lot of people were aware of until it was put right in front of them. It’s always been an interest of mine to find ways to continue and do this thing I do, and to make serious progress toward improving the environment for people who work in this industry, like, ‘Hey, this is a thing where you can build a career. This is a place where you can build a life.’”

Sangeeta Lakhani