THOUGH RESTAURANT TABLES have been largely empty since March, one table has gotten more crowded, and that’s Big Table, a nonprofit organization providing social services specifically for food and beverage employees in need. Suddenly, there are a lot more of them.
Upward of 8 million restaurant workers nationwide lost their jobs last spring, according to one National Restaurant Association survey. Recent Washington Employment Security Department statistics show leisure and hospitality workers remain the largest segment by far of the vast numbers still unemployed in the state. In an industry where 43% of workers already fall below the official poverty line, that’s catastrophic.
Big Table started in Spokane in 2009 after the Great Recession, and branched out to Seattle in 2015 and to San Diego last year. The organization works through personal referrals, “catching people before they fall,” as founder and executive director Kevin Finch puts it. Referrals soared in the first half of 2020 — 440 in Spokane, 416 in Seattle and 360 in San Diego — already far outstripping last year’s total care recipients in each city.
“It doesn’t take long to slip, ”says Shannon Wittenberg, a Big Table care coordinator in Seattle. “If you can catch someone before they’ve lost everything, it’s a lot easier to help them back on their feet.”
Until recently, Big Table built its network of connections in the food and beverage industry mainly through dinners held four times a year — the most recent in January at Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi in Bellevue. They bring an actual “big table” to these events, where they host 48 people invited from the industry: managers, line cooks, dishwashers, servers, baristas, bartenders. What they ask in return are referrals.
Even prepandemic, almost every food service worker knew someone who was struggling. Someone facing daunting medical debt or an expensive car repair. Someone who’d fallen behind on the rent or off the wagon, who couldn’t afford emergency dental work or school clothes for the kids. For all the joy the hospitality industry generates, its workforce is often poorly paid, has a limited safety net, and experiences high rates of divorce and substance abuse. A series of small but unfortunate events can quickly become a crisis.
Care coordinators start by doing a lot of listening and asking a lot of questions. Rent and food are people’s main concerns right now, they say. Their initial outreach is just the beginning. They keep in touch with recipients, developing supportive relationships, functioning much like mentors or life coaches. The solution to a problem might be as simple as a gift card for gas and groceries. For greater needs, Big Table partners with a trusted network of other charitable organizations and service providers, including doctors, dentists, therapists, auto mechanics and lawyers.
As a faith-based nonprofit, Big Table doesn’t have to ask people referred to them to provide documentation of income, as the IRS requires of nonreligious social service nonprofits, notes Finch, a former church pastor and onetime restaurant critic. Though, “Christian faith shapes the core of Big Table,” their care is “unconditional,” he says. “Being categorized as a religious organization gives us more freedom to care for everyone in the industry in crisis rather than just those who fit the definition of impoverished. This means we can legally care for the owner of a restaurant struggling with addiction or going through a divorce just like we would his or her dishwasher, who might be unable to pay rent.
“Maybe the hardest and most important part of helping people put their lives back together is establishing and maintaining a relationship. That is where Big Table excels,” according to Mark Canlis, co-owner with his brother, Brian, of Canlis restaurant. “Of all the organizations we work with, or have partnered with, very few are this relational. They realize you can’t walk into someone’s life and fix it. It’s a long, slow, messy process.”
Canlis first turned to Big Table several years ago, albeit reluctantly, referring a sous chef diagnosed with cancer. “It felt like a stigma, like we weren’t able to care for our own people. The reality was, we couldn’t give him the kind of time-consuming relationship he needed as he walked through cancer. We couldn’t sit with him, take him to appointments, listen to him or be with his family.” Since then, the Canlis brothers have referred several employees to Big Table and encourage their staff to do the same.
Canlis has lately been a conduit for donations. Their customers have contributed roughly $50,000 to Big Table over the past few months, simply by clicking on a $5 donation button when they order dinner delivered from the restaurant through the reservation website Tock. Many click numerous times.
Another $25,000 was channeled to Big Table by Ascend, representing all tips collected on delivery while the restaurant was closed for in-restaurant dining. Those were welcome new sources of funding, since so many restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, distributors and food service suppliers Big Table has relied on for support are struggling themselves. (The organization’s annual fall fundraiser, “Big Table Eats Around the World,” will be a virtual event this year, on Oct. 16. The cost to host a table from home is $500.)
Other community support has materialized this year, as well. About 800 people with no prior engagement with Big Table stepped up to help, Finch says, including individuals; family foundations; and Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which donated $70,000. It allowed them to increase their direct care budget by $600,000 this year.
That money will help people like Richelle, who has worked as a server for 30 years. A hip replacement years ago was the beginning of “a terrible time.” She lost everything and for a while was homeless, so the prospect of a second hip surgery terrified her. A manager at the catering company where Richelle worked referred her to Big Table. Wittenberg says they helped with rent and phone bills after her surgery until she was working again. When COVID-19 hit and her hours were cut, Big Table helped again with rent and bills.
“It’s such a giving atmosphere,” says Richelle of her experience with Big Table. “Shannon is so sweet and gentle. She really understands what a server goes through.” Richelle also liked not having to “fill out a million forms.” She works for Instacart now and is hoping to become a peer counselor “just to give back a little.”
“I really prided myself on good service,” Richelle says. “After serving people for all those years, I feel like the karma is coming back around.”