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Tampa Bay bartenders and laundry non-profit join forces in pandemic fight

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.

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Articles Food News

Why are landlords still raising rent on restaurants during a pandemic?

News has spread that Cafe Ponte in Clearwater is now permanently closed due to COVID-19 and leasing problems. This is the beginning of many stories that will soon be told about failing restaurants in Tampa Bay. Personally I did not dine there, but was constantly told about the place from those who love to eat in Tampa.

The owner told the Tampa Bay Times: “He wanted to increase the rent and we couldn’t come to a fair agreement.” Other projects are in the works, but this spot was running for 18 years and is now closed.

Unfortunately, this is going to be really common as the virus continues to persist.

One of the big reasons is because most restaurants in Tampa Bay are due for leasing renewals or may have recently signed one.

Many of the restaurants in Tampa Bay appeared during the last financial crisis or Great Recession in the early 2010s. Those leases expired in a market where Tampa real estate has swelled and become quite expensive as more people moved to Florida and companies began relocating to the region. It wasn’t as much of a problem until Coronavirus showed up and put ice on tourism in Florida.

This also begs the question, why are landlords still increasing rent in the middle of a pandemic? Who exactly is going to move into these empty units during one of the worst times of uncertainty? It is a problem that is plaguing both businesses and working class people already being squeezed.

Even Starbucks is asking for rent relief after their sales fell by 85% from their landlords. How can small businesses survive like that?

Restaurants have experienced a huge disruption with states closing their businesses for over a month and putting them into minimized operating capacity to help stop the spread of COVID-19. While this is important for public health and needs to be done, the same government who mandates closures should also be working to protect restaurants from rent increases, evictions, and other forces.

There’s a number of tools that can be used to help restaurants that still aren’t being used in Florida or Tampa Bay even get a little bit of help.

Cities around the country are putting caps on delivery fees to help restaurants that have lost much of their dine-in business and are seeing increases in delivery and take-out. Even with restaurants re-opening, studies show that most customers will not be dining in again until a vaccine is hopefully created for COVID-19.

OpenTable data shows that for the most part, dining has yet to recover and has hung stubbornly around -80% or higher for most cities that already opened their doors.

A viral photograph shows how Grubhub and the various delivery platforms actually take in a huge amount of profits from restaurants even during the pandemic as they struggle to survive. Uber Eats takes up to 30% of a delivery commission. Rumor has it that Uber is about to buy Grubhub for $6 billion, which will lower the bargaining power that restaurants will have on fees.

Although PPP (Payroll Protection Program) loans are being heavily floated as a way for restaurants to stay afloat, many owners cried foul after they realized that PPP loans are mostly for payrolls (as the name implied) and most of the money cannot be used towards rent or other costs. This is mostly good for workers which is important, but it will not fundamentally save the restaurants who now have the funds but still have numerous costs to figure out.

If cities and states really want to protect their small businesses and restaurants as they say they do, they need to come up with more tools to help those places stay in business. It’s unfair to ask restaurants simply to shoulder the burden of staying closed during this health emergency and to not offer them tools to survive the pandemic as well.

California has come up with a few interesting things like paying restaurants to help feed the elderly and more things like that might be needed nationwide.

Policymakers need to find ways to provide rent relief for restaurants and to help ease other issues plaguing restaurants now like supply disruptions, spiking food costs, the cost of acquiring PPE, and other issues at play. At the very least, landlords should not be raising rent on restaurants in the middle of a pandemic.

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Articles Food News News

What I’m Reading Food Media – April 25th

It’s been awhile since a round-up was done. The world has changed since I started this list, but here is what I’m reading lately in food media:

Bonus:

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Articles Events Food Events Food News News

NEWS: 6th Annual Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival kicks off February 29th

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is launching their 6th Annual Food and Wine Festival earlier this year on Saturday, February 29th, 2020. The festival will run every weekend from February 29th to April 26th and included with park admission to the theme park.

This year will feature 25 new food items in addition to fan-favorite dishes and 80 wines, beers, and cocktails, to choose from. Some new additions include:

  • Chef’s Corner Cabin: Features 3 signature dishes carefully crafted by the park’s head chefs such as arroz con pollo, a pork belly taco with kimchi slaw, and pork tenderloin with champagne watercress sauce
  • Coaster Cocktails: Iron Gwazi Gimlet, Falcon’s Fury Lemon Drop, and Tigris Tea
  • Pick-A-Barrel Tastings: create your own flight of liquors and wines from around the world
  • Some other new food items include Kung Pao Ribs, Maple Bacon Cinnamon Rolls, “Boujee” Bacon, Fried Clams, Pork Tamales, Grilled Shrimp Elotes, and Strawberry Shortcake Sundaes

Guests can purchase a 5, 8, or 12-item sampler lanyard to use at each festival cabin to explore sample-sized dishes and drink offerings and they start at $32. Pass Members can purchase an exclusive 15-item sampler for the same price as a 12-item sampler and save 20% off.

Pass Members can get a sneak peak on February 28th that will include an all new menu of sips and samples and Eaglemania: The World’s Greatest Eagles Tribute Band.

Busch Gardens plans to launch Iron Gwazi this spring, North America’s tallest hybrid coaster and the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world.

The 6th Annual Food and Wine Festival concert schedule:

Feb 29:                 Collective Soul
March 1:              The Commodores

March 7:              Chase Bryant & Danielle Bradbery

March 8:              Rachel Platten

March 14:            Ezra Ray Hart
March 15:            THREE DOG NIGHT

March 21:            LOCASH 
March 22:            Fitz & The Tantrums

March 28:            Home Free
March 29:            Taking Back Sunday

April 4:                 Third Eye Blind
April 5:                 KC & The Sunshine Band

April 11:               38 Special 
April 12:               Micah Tyler & Austin French 

April 18:               Lee Brice
April 19:               Clint Black

April 25:               El Gran Combo
April 26:               Toad the Wet Sprocket & The Verve Pipe

Find more information on the 6th Annual Food & Wine Festival at http://buschgardens.com/tampa/events/food-and-wine-festival/

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Articles Food News Restaurant News

NEWS: Sweet Buns Bakery opens by USF in Tampa’s Uptown

Sweet Buns Bakery is now open by USF in Tampa’s Uptown. The Asian bakery is originally from Gainesville and has the same ownership as Yummy House. It is yet another new business to come to the area in recent months.

The concept is similar to a popular chain called 85°C Bakery Café, a Taiwanese bakery chain that serves a variety of baked breads and pastries as well as drinks to customers. 85°C Bakery Café is currently experiencing rapid expansion across the United States.

Here’s a list of the cake offerings at Sweet Buns.

This concept is notably going to compete with a number of bubble tea shops already in the area which usually sell snacks and sweet beverages. There is a quite a few other Asian concepts currently in the works for the neighborhood.

According to the Sweet Buns website the stores “feature free wifi, made-to-order baked goods, cakes, and a relaxing environment to study or just hang and enjoy some sweets.”

Sweet Buns Gainesville photo from @eldublibrarian
Photo credit: Instagram user @xo_jt_xo

The bakery is located at 2788 East Fowler Avenue,Tampa, FL 33612.

Visit them online at sweetbuns.co

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Articles Beer Food News Travel

Cigar City Brewing at TPA in running for Best Local Dining award by USA Today

USA Today‘s 10Best Reader’s Choice Awards currently has Cigar City Brewing at TPA (Tampa International Airport) in the running for two categories: Best Airport Bar/Restaurant Atmosphere and Best Airport Bar.

Cigar City Brewing opened last year in the Airside C of Tampa International Airport and is serving and brewing local craft beer to airport visitors daily with Cuban food. Popular crafts such as Jai Alai, Invasion Pale Ale, Maduro, and Florida Cracker can be found at the airport brewery along with other selections.

Votes are accepted daily and Cigar City and TPA is looking for locals in Tampa and fans of the craft beer success story to help spread the word.

How to vote:

Best Airport Bar/Restaurant Atmosphere: http://bit.ly/cigar2019

Best Airport Bar: http://bit.ly/cigarcity2019

Cigar City Brewing was founded by Joey Redner in 2007 in Tampa and pays homage to the rich history of Tampa and Ybor City. It is one of the biggest supports of Tampa Bay’s craft beer scene that now includes over 100 breweries. Cigar City produces over 60,000 barrels of beer a year and has released over 6,000 individual brands of beer. Their annual Hunapu’s Day release party is one of the most popular and exclusive craft beer events in the country.

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Articles Food News

International Cuban Sandwich Festival seeks home chef entries

The International Cuban Sandwich Festival, held annually in Tampa is seeking home entries for this year’s festival which will occur on Sunday, March 31st, 2019 at Ybor City’s Historic Centennial Park. The festival is now in its 8th year.

The organizers of the festival are seeking home chefs or someone with an incredible Cuban recipe to enter their competition. The new category is officially called: “Homestyle Cuban Sandwich Smackdown Contest!”

There will be cash prizes and media packages for winners of the new category.

Interested participants can send an email to vpadilla@latin-times.com. Hurry because entries are limited.

For those who don’t know, the Cuban Sandwich was created in Tampa by immigrants in the last 1800s who worked in Ybor City’s cigar factories. Ybor City was home to a number of immigrants during this era with community buildings such as the Cuban Club and Italian Club. Those buildings can still be seen today in Ybor City.

Despite some controversy with Miami, Tampa is the home of the Cuban Sandwich and has been served since at least 1905 in restaurants there.

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Articles Food News

Gigglewaters offers free movie and beer to those impacted by U.S. government shutdown

Gigglewaters is offering a free movie and beer to those impacted the current U.S. government shutdown with proof of position each night until the shutdown ends. The local speakeasy in Safety Harbor, Florida is a popular spot to catch old flicks and enjoy some excellent food and cocktails.

The current government shutdown is one of the longest in U.S. history and has no clear end in sight for government workers and contractors. More than 400,000 are working without pay during the shutdown according to CNBC.

Gigglewaters is located at 737 Main Street Safety, Harbor, Florida 34695. You can reach them at (727) 669-7077. Visit them online at www.gigglewaters.com

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Food Events Food News Food Trucks Restaurant News

Spaddy’s Coffee Co. celebrates 1 year anniversary in Seminole Heights

Spaddy’s Coffee Co. will celebrate its 1 year anniversary on Saturday, September 2nd, 2017 in Seminole Heights. I’ve been fan of Spaddy’s Coffee ever since I met the dude at the Seminole Heights Japan Festival. The staff is always friendly and the coffee and tea are always good.

The event will run all day starting at 10AM with coffee service beginning at 8AM as usual. Live music will play beginning at 11AM featuring ARi CHi, Mia Bury, and Jinx.

BBQ will be served all day courtesy of Ultimate Pavers. Ice cream will be available for purchase from Revolution Ice Cream. Mother Kumbucha will be there serving samples of their kombucha.

Giveaways will be held throughout the day for visitors.

Happy Birthday to Spaddy’s!

Event Name: Spaddy’s Coffee 1 Year Anniversary

Neighborhood: Seminole Heights

Address: 5206 N Florida Avenue Tampa, FL 33603

Date & Time: Saturday, September 2nd, 2017, 10AM-?

Cost: FREE to attend

Facebook RSVP: http://www.facebook.com/events/109561206408319/

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Articles Food News

Amazon to immediately lower price of healthy food after Whole Foods acquisition

In a move that is sure to send shock waves quickly throughout the grocery business, Amazon will immediately lower prices of healthy food items once it successfully acquires Whole Foods on Monday, August 28th, 2017.

Woman holds an avocado

On the list: organic avocados, organic brown eggs, organic responsibly-farmed salmon, almond butter, organic apples, organic rotisserie chicken, and more. Amazon has pledged to continue dropping prices and will offer Amazon Prime members exclusive deals in the future when they phase out the current rewards system that Whole Foods has in place.

In addition, Whole Foods brands will be available on Amazon.com, AmazonFresh, Prime Pantry and Prime Now starting Monday.

Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO, Jeff Wilke, says they are “determined to make healthy and organic food affordable for everyone. Everybody should be able to eat Whole Foods Market quality.” He also said they “will lower prices without compromising Whole Foods Market’s long-held commitment to the highest standards.”

Whole Foods was sued in the past multiple times for price-gouging customers, Amazon seems to be making it clear they will prioritize making prices friendlier to consumers with these statements. Lowering the price of healthy food is sure to put pressure on grocery stores that frequently charge consumers extra for healthy food.

A 2013 study in the British Medical Journal Open found that people with healthy diets spend about a $1.50 more per day than people who eat unhealthy diets. This is mainly a burden for families that have low-incomes. The 2013 study also notes that the food industry itself is part of the problem and needs to change to make healthier food available:

unhealthy diets may cost less because food policies have focused on the production of “inexpensive, high volume” commodities, which has led to “a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” Given this reality, they said that creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase availability—and reduce the prices—of more healthful diets.”

Maybe Amazon is trying to do exactly that. Only time will tell.