Whether it’s making protective masks or feeding those without access to food, compassionate bartenders across the country are stepping out from behind the bar to support their customers and communities in unprecedented ways through the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shutdowns.
“I think it’s more or less taking what we’ve learned from hospitality and applying it to being community planners and to community aid assistance,” says Los Angeles bartender Aaron Melendrez, who co-founded an organization to feed undocumented workers. “It’s taking those principles of treating someone well in your house and being intuitive to someone’s needs, and just applying that to what’s happening now.”
While it would be easy to give up faced with these unsurmountable challenges, these bartenders have gone above and beyond solving major problems with little or no relevant experience. Their selfless acts are nothing short of courageous. Just as they did for others, Knob Creek® now believes we need to come together to say thank you and recognize the importance of their hard work.
Read on for more about Melendrez’s inspiring story and about four other bartenders turned everyday heroes who have helped and protected their industry and communities.
When government mandated coronavirus closures hit Chicago’s hospitality community, it became clear to bartender Julia Momose that bars would need to find a new revenue stream to stay in business. The obvious solution was to-go cocktails, which a number of cities around the country had recently approved.
“The idea came pretty much on day two of us being shut down,” says Momose. “I had seen that the governor allowed us to sell packaged goods, which was new. It used to be a separate license to be able to sell bottles of whiskey or wine or whatever, but then I realized that cocktails weren’t allowed. So I started poking about and asking questions.”
She ultimately founded the organization Cocktails for Hope with the goal to enact legislative reform to legalize to-go cocktails throughout Illinois. With the support of a lawyer, communications and marketing professionals, and state Senator Sara Feigenholtz, Momose was able to draft Bill HB2682. It passed on June 20 and made to-go cocktails legal for a year.
“I wish we had more time, but in a sense just one year is critical for us to prove that we can do this safely and that our customers will follow the rules,” says Momose. She hopes to be able to use her experience and Cocktail for Hope as a resource for others across the country, and to eventually make this a permanent part of Illinois law.
Charlotte, North Carolina, bartender Jessica Lefkowitz was shocked to find out that the local men’s homeless shelter had closed as part of government ordered coronavirus closures.
“Five weeks or so into the pandemic I saw a video a friend posted of the tent community [near our bar] on Facebook,” says Lefkowitz. “I was taken aback by what I saw because the community was not there five weeks earlier—I knew this because it was on the route that I took to work every day.”
The next day she prepared 50 meals and brought them over to the folks living there. She continued doing so for the next seven weeks and began posting on social media about their need for food and supplies. Her friends started to lend a hand, making food, offering resources and donating to the cause. “I used the money to buy more tents and sleeping bags,” says Lefkowitz. “Then the word got out even more and others started collecting clothes, tents and supplies.”
Lefkowitz has so far used more than $1,000 of her own money to support this community, despite losing her own job.
“I knew even though I was laid off from work things would never get that bad for me,” she says. “I currently am working on housing placements and job placements and helping with resumes. I still bring supplies but I am focusing on long-term efforts.”
She’s now also partnering with local nonprofits in order to provide COVID-19 testing, mental health counseling and drug treatment. “I am simply trying to advocate for people who are deemed invisible,” she says. “I want everyone to see them and help.”
Los Angeles bartender Aaron Melendrez realized he needed to jump into action following L.A.’s bar shutdown to ensure that undocumented back-of-house staff who couldn’t file for unemployment aid or receive federal relief money would remain food secure while out of work.
“It’s really hard to watch my fellow brothers and sisters in the hospitality industry just struggling so much right now,” says Melendrez. “This isn’t just a migrant worker problem. This is all of our problems across the board in hospitality.”
Within 24 hours of his bar closing, Melendrez and two colleagues Damian Diaz and Othón Nolasco founded No Us Without You. The idea is that with just $33, they could put together pantry boxes that feed a family of four for a week—and families could continue to return for a box each week as long as they need it. Meal boxes contain what Melendrez refers to as “Latino pantry essentials,” including everything from eggs, milk and cheese, to vegetables, fruit, bread and tortillas.
After the first day they had enough to feed the first 30 families. The effort quickly snowballed and now No Us Without You provides 700 pantry boxes to undocumented hospitality workers each week. They have also brought on full-time volunteer staff to help out.
“We’re talking about the undocumented workforce of America,” says Melendrez, who still helps out where he can, but recently had to step back in order to pursue paid work. “These people aren’t here for a handout, they’re here to work and earn their own keep and create their own American dream.”
Similarly, Miami, Florida, bartender Hector Acevedo’s consulting company Cocktail Cartel is gathering donations and has partnered with other businesses and organizations to ensure that their community has access to meals as long as the pandemic persists. For each sponsored meal, Cocktail Cartel matches the donation.
“In the first 24 hours of this initiative, we were able to raise the funds to supply 1,000 meals to those in our community, from out of work bartenders, to Miami Rescue Mission and Lotus House,” says Acevedo. “This is about providing relief to the community.”
Cocktail Cartel is now able to serve more than 5,000 meals in a three week period, which are delivered or picked up by those who need a hot meal. They’ve also provided meals to Mercy Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital and take 75 meals out to serve the homeless community every other Friday.
“We continue to find partners to be able to keep feeding the community,” says Acevedo.
Finding herself unemployed following a bar shutdown, Portland, Oregon, bartender Mariah Tatham (pictured above) embarked on a mask-making mission.
“I was sitting at home and my roommate was like, ‘Why don’t you make masks?’” says Tatham, who went to school to be a seamstress. Resolving to channel her skills into helping her community, she took to Instagram to offer her services and word quickly spread. “The next thing you know five masks turns into 50 and then 1,500.”
Tatham isn’t accepting payment for the masks, but after depleting her own fabric stockpile to make the first 200 masks, she began taking donations of materials and money, which she put back into the venture. Soon she had enough to fulfill all the requests coming in.
“I spent three days riding around Portland on this little bike delivering masks and then from there I decided it was easier just to mail them,” says Tatham, adding that she’s now made masks for people across the U.S. “About 1,200 of those went to bartenders, liquor stores and any industry folk, and the rest were actually donated for the protests here in Portland.”
Though she took a break for a bit and was hoping to be back at work, she plans to make more masks and says anyone needing a cloth face covering can reach out to her on Instagram.