When Bill Smith started a GoFundMe on March 21, 2017, he was reacting to the draconian immigration policies being put forth by the newly inaugurated president. Smith, who was the chef at Crook’s Corner in Carrboro for decades before retiring in 2019, hoped to raise a little money that he could use to support local immigrant families. 

Three years to the day after he sent out the first update on his fundraising page, Smith, who has long been a vocal advocate for immigrant communities, shared another update: The remaining money in the fund, which he had been treating as a contingency plan, would be distributed among newly jobless restaurant workers to help everyone make rent. As the pandemic dragged on, he scraped together more money each month to keep people in the community housed and their utilities paid. 

Every month brought another matter-of-fact update on Smith’s Twitter. “October 1st. We cast a wide net this month. Some rents and utilities, renewed 3 kids’ passports and a flu shot for a guy with bad asthma. $57 and change left over. Thank you, everybody. Bring on November.”

“I ran through all the money we had immediately,” Smith says. “Every month since then, it’s been a little bit of a scramble, but there have been all sorts of little miracles. People have literally come up to me on the street and shoved money into my hands.”

Some of the newly unemployed people in Smith’s circle were employees at Crook’s Corner, which has since reopened. Very few restaurant workers in Chapel Hill , though, have returned to their full-time jobs, and many are ineligible for unemployment.

In the absence of credible government leadership, and with no guarantee of financial support from state or federal officials, restaurants across the country have been forced to fall back on their own resources to protect themselves and their employees. 

More than 1.3 million North Carolinians have filed unemployment claims since March, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce—a number that doesn’t include undocumented workers ineligible for government assistance.

National estimates from Yelp suggest that 60 percent of the restaurants that have closed will not reopen, and while it’s difficult to know definitively how many Triangle-area spots have shuttered, the damage is clear: From fine dining restaurants like Royale to homegrown Carrboro staple Elmo’s Diner, restaurants of every kind of have been wiped out.

In March, the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association launched the N.C. Restaurant Workers Relief Fund in a coordinated effort to support hospitality workers across the state. Keeping up with need has been an uphill battle.

“Sadly, it’s going to be a dark winter for many hospitality businesses due to the prolonged pandemic,” says Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the association. “That means many workers will struggle to make ends meet. That’s why it’s so important that we keep the momentum going for the relief fund, which has already provided nearly $1.3 million as $500 grants to thousands of North Carolinians in dire need—and the need is still great.”

Grassroots efforts like Smith’s, meanwhile, have become backstops—ways for communities to pool resources. 

For Lindsay Moriarty and Rob Gillespie, owners of Durham’s beloved Monuts, ensuring worker protection meant reaching into an emergency fund they had built along with their business. On March 26, Moriarty and Gillespie shared a message on their website, announcing that they would be shutting down the restaurant for five weeks, starting on March 30.

“Every day we were changing what we were doing drastically,” Gillespie says. “Every decision we made in those first two weeks was focused on what we could do to keep our staff safe, and it kind of just got overwhelming. We realized we needed to take a pause if we were going to have time to actually figure it out, big picture-wise.”

When Gillespie and Moriarty first opened Monuts, they resolved that their primary focus would be on being good employers. To that end, they built an emergency fund that allowed them to continue paying their entire staff their regular salaries for the duration of the five-week closure. In the letter they shared, Moriarty explained the thinking.

“Monuts’ strength is not accidental; it’s the result of nine years of trying our hardest to make the right decisions,” she wrote. “We always thought we were planning for a fire or a flood—never a pandemic, but here we are.”

“We’re both just really cautious people,” Gillespie says. “The building we’re in already had a fire once before we moved in, so the thought of something happening that would keep us from making a living is definitely a real thing, even before the pandemic.”

The decision to close was made to give staff a chance to breathe after the first few weeks of the pandemic, with the hope that things would be more stable when they reopened. Since reopening, Gillespie says, they’ve seen a huge amount of support from the community, even as COVID-19 cases have spiked in recent weeks.

“We have no intention of opening our dining room, because we don’t feel like it’s safe and our staff certainly doesn’t want to open the dining room,” he says. “I understand some people don’t have that choice, but we do. We’re grateful for the flexibility.”

On November 16, Smith shared another fundraising update.

“November’s election was a relief, although less of one than we would have liked,” he wrote. “We’ve been able to pay people’s rent and utility bills, by the skin of our teeth sometimes, so far … I’m optimistic that if we can get people to Inauguration Day, things will turn out ok for them. Only donate if you can really afford to, and a million thanks to those who already have. These last four years have been quite something, haven’t they?”  

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