COVID-19 has impacted numerous industries around the country. One of the hardest hit industries is the bar industry where bartenders have constantly found themselves in shutdowns with rent still due and clothes that needs washing.
Recently, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation closed bars and breweries around the state as virus cases continue to spin out of control due to very little regulation or engagement from Tallahassee.
Once again numerous bartenders have found themselves without work. Meanwhile some restaurants are breaking the rules with impunity.
I talked recently with Justin Gray from the United States Bartenders’ Guild chapter in Tampa Bay, a long time supporter of the industry and one of the best local bartenders I know.
I wanted to get the story behind how they ended up partnering with a non-profit called Current Initiatives and their Laundry Project which is “committed to educating and mobilizing communities to be Hope Dealers” for a project called A Drink Pocalypse that is raising money for bartenders and also for Current Initatives.
Supporters can purchase videos on cocktail techniques from experts around the Tampa Bay at the low cost of $10 and help support the industry and those who need it most.
Carlos Eats: What’s the story behind the partnership between USBG Tampa Bay Chapter and Current Initiatives?
JG: There isn’t a backstory – there is the reality of restaurant closures and the response to COVID-19. It was unexpected and something that none of us knew how to prepare for.
When it happened more than anything it was kind of a sense of emergency. I don’t think it was something light-hearted. We need something now.
USBG and bartenders…we’ve had meetings and conversations. A Drink Pocalypse happened in late April, while restaurants and bar were initially closed in March. We as an industry hadn’t figured it out.
There was a sense of urgency.
Carlos Eats: So survival pretty much?
JG: Sam Adams did something. Guy Fieri too. However too many people are impacted for one of those to have an actual lasting effect. Seeing how many people lost their jobs nationally, there is no way for those programs to guarantee that the assistance would come into our zip codes.
We wanted to do something where all funds would be kept right here in Tampa. Open to anyone throughout the Bay Area. The candidate pool was smaller.
That’s what drove us.
Carlos Eats: How can people help?
JG: Current Initatives has been around. When the restaurant closures happened, they extended their programs to include the hospitality programs.
What a lot of people aren’t thinking about. One of the most unfortunate things is the number of places that are permanently closed. We aren’t counting how many places have closed permanently or indefinitely.
Even though some restaurants are open, we are going to continue to provide help as long as we can.
Cocktail videos from bartenders from M. Bird, Copper and Shaker, the best bars in Tampa will show you different cocktail techniques. The video is a learn video.
As a bar manager or owner, you can purchase this video and they have incredible techniques that can be implemented. Sales go directly to Current Initiatives.
Buy the videos to support bartenders. Whether people are philanthropic or just to learn. The value is far beyond $10.
Carlos Eats: What do you think the state or city should be doing to help?
JG: I don’t want to make this sound like it is only a bartender phenomenon. If I can get sick at a bar, I can get sick anywhere else. The policy is inconsistent.
The situation is like this: either people go hungry or people lose their lives. Either people pay rent or people pay their lives. It’s an impossible situation and it is absolutely necessary that institutions – that they be there.
Stimulus checks can be good or bad. We need to halt rent payments. Our government has to care enough about us. The numbers in Florida are record breaking, at the same time people cannot afford not to have money.
None of us citizens are able to stop the coronavirus. There is nothing we as citizens can do besides looking at our government. Please continue to provide support. People are not able to work.
It’s time for us to look at how the government can continue to extender rent or mortgage deferments. The government is the only one who can help us.
Everyone needs help.
The more people that buy the video the better.
I then wanted to get more of the story behind Current Initiatives so I talked with the Founder Jason Sowell. He is a native Floridian who has worked in the non-profit sector for 20 years. He is a public speaker, writer, non-profit entrepreneur, missionary, wedding officiant & podcast host.
Carlos Eats: Can you start off with the history behind Current Initiatives?
JS: Current Initiatives started 12 years ago. Our first initiative was The Laundry Project. Out of learning stories about families that live in the area, I learned laundromats are expensive and not a fun place.
Lots of families struggle between groceries or laundry. I sought to turn laundromats into community centers and provide free laundry for those in need. I had big expansions plans for new locations and citizens, then the pandemic happened.
Things shut down. I pivoted back to Tampa – which is my home that I love. Recognizing that it is not just lower income families. People are out of work. The hospitality industry is hit hard. People will struggle to do their laundry.
I sat down with Mayor Jane Castor and TPD and I said we need to keep doing this. I told them I hope they will keep laundromats an essential business.
Carlos Eats: Would volunteers be helpful?
JS: We typically use volunteers, but shut down most of it due to the pandemic. A few bartenders and servers are personal friends that were laid off and hadn’t participated before then offered to help.
The hospitality industry got involved as volunteers and for 3 months teams of hospitality workers have worked 3 days a week to help in laundromats. 1 day a week is for hospitality workers. Bartenders went to bars and restaurants and told people about the project. Whoever needs can sign-up.
Carlos Eats: How can the general public help?
JS: Donations are what we are seeking. People can contact to volunteer when things get better. The need has been great. Typically we do 80 projects in a year, but in 16 weeks we have done 48 projects. Much more than usual. We don’t have plans to slow down.
Carlos Eats: What policy solutions could be used to help?
JS: A huge block of citizens who use laundromats are there by force. Prices at laundromats are what they are due to policy decisions. At home you pay for water by the gallon, but laundromats pay in tiers which strains operators and raises prices on citizens. It’s a slim-margin business.
Carlos Eats: How else can the government make a difference?
JS: Government assistance is usually only for food. People cannot use it for household supplies. Nor can they use it at a laundromat which is a problem.
Also – lower-income families are operating on cash. Politicians are pushing cashless which is harder on lower-income families who may not have bank accounts for contact-less payments and the hospitality industry which is paid in cash from tips.
There is a coin shortage due to a shutdown at the mint. Politicians need to get creative to get quarters to help families who need to wash their clothes. Bad policy can make things worse for people already struggling.
We as a society need to think about doing things in way that is dignifying for people getting help or empowering. Decisions during the coronavirus unintentionally are hurting lower-income families because leaders are not thinking things through.
Carlos Eats: I agree. The shutdown of bars and breweries is a perfect example of rushed decision making.
JS: Yes – that shutdown depends largely on license types. If you are coded for a restaurant you are allowed to operate, while other businesses close.
If I had to home in on a temporary measure we need to take, we need to make it easier for people out of work to get funds for things they need. Unemployment access.
Some bartenders have spent weeks and months helping other bartenders that need help, while struggling themselves to get on unemployment. That needs to change.
Carlos Eats: Thank you for your time. I know I learned a ton.
Support the United States Bartenders Guild in Tampa Bay at A Drink Pocalpyse (www.adrinkpocalypse.com).
Visit The Laundry Project by Current Initatives online at laundrybycurrent.org.