Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

How American Bartenders Are Supporting Each Other Right Now

In spite of their own struggles, bartenders and other hospitality workers extend a hand to one another in whatever ways they can.

Image: / Alex Testere​

One of the many qualities of a great bartender is an innate knack for taking care of others. Never has this proven to be more true than in their own time of need. With members from all other corners of the hospitality and spirits industries rallying around them, the bartending community is banding together to find a whole new kind of inner strength.

When the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began to really hit home with bar and restaurant closures nationwide, response from within the industry was swift in online groups like Thirsty, a Facebook community of global bar professionals managed by its eponymous publication, and Industry United, a similar group created in the wake of the closures, which had already gained more than 24,000 members at the time of publication. Posts from bartenders offering moral support, stretching and workout classes, book clubs, resources, productivity scheduling, comedic relief, mental health check-ins and more quickly formed a much-needed support network. 

Several industry members began aggregating and organizing lists of bars and restaurants offering to-go cocktails, and brand ambassador Michael Toscano compiled a comprehensive list of national GoFundMe campaigns created by bars and restaurants to help their staff. In San Antonio, bartender and manager Maren Nazera Erickson offered to revamp unemployed workers' resumes. Industry activist and educator Ashtin Berry teamed up with industry veteran Robin Nance to organize a social media campaign entitled America’s Table, a three-point action plan designed to organize the community in an effort to prepare for the unknown future. Virtual “tip jar” websites like and were launched to put money directly (and swiftly) into bartenders’ pockets. And some bars and restaurants, despite being forced to shutter for dine-in service, started offering free groceries and meals to furloughed workers.

Feeding the People

Donna Cocktail Club
in Brooklyn was among the first to begin feeding those who had been recently laid off, creating a “High Spirits” tab for a free hot meal and a bottle of Topo Chico, via contact-free pickup or delivery, to anyone out of a job. Patrick Gartner, the beverage director at Donna, proposed the idea, and brands quickly came onboard to offer support to keep the program going. 

“If you feed someone, you can feed their soul and give them hope,” says Leif Huckman, Donna’s owner. “We found it our duty to take care of the people who take care of others for as long as we could.” If you’d like to support Donna’s relief tab yourself, you can purchase a gift card from its website’s gift shop under the name “High Spirits.”

New Orleans Takes Initiative

The New Orleans hospitality scene is no stranger to mobilizing as a means of protecting and uplifting its community. Jennifer O’Blenis, a career bar veteran and the managing partner of El Cucuy NOLA, lists some of the ways in which she and her fellow industry pros have banded together for the greater good. “We have a Facebook group called Mutual Aid—New Orleans, where we are all asking questions about aid programs, helping each other figure out unemployment and generally creating a barter system for things each of us need or have excess of and can share,” she says. “We also started a hospitality workers’ Quarantine Cookbook group to share recipes from ingredients in our fridges and pantries so we don't get bored of our own cooking, as well as tips for those who aren't good at cooking for themselves and are now forced to.” 

O’Blenis, who serves as the USBG NOLA chapter president and a board member of The Barman's Fund of Louisiana, says that many community members are constantly checking in on one another, as well as sharing information about mental health and sobriety resources in the absence of meetings and in-person therapy sessions. Additionally, Bar Tonique’s Mark Schettler has been organizing a local group to research legislation, compile resources and press hits and the like.

Virtual Socializing for Good

Brooklyn is the birthplace of the most successful virtual happy hours yet, their purpose being much greater than providing social reprieve. Dani and Jackie’sVirtual Happy Hour, co-founded by writer and spirits entrepreneur Jackie Summers, digital marketing pro Daniella Veras and Cocktail & Sons CEO Lauren Myerscough, brings together members of the hospitality scene and guests twice nightly, serving as an opportunity for host bartenders to earn tips from attendees. 

The gathering, which is often backed by liquor brands, has caught the attention of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and more, crowdsourcing thousands of dollars for its host bartenders as relief during their abrupt unemployment. Some bartenders have paid it directly forward: Mary Palac of Paper Plane in San Jose, Calif., donated her earnings—more than $400—to her local tip pool, which she had helped to launch earlier that day. “I knew how lucky I was to get the opportunity to be featured during the cocktail hour, and all I could think of was all of those people who don’t have the access and network I do,” says Palac. “I’ve invested so many years trying to build our cocktail community, and it was so important to try to keep us together.” 

She and fellow Paper Plane bartender Patrick Braga selected 20 people at random from their city’s ServiceIndustry.Tips page and sent them each a share. “It’s these tiny moments of hope and unity that will get us through day after day,” she says.

From Restaurant to Relief Center

Before the pandemic, Lindsey Ofcacek, the beverage director at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., was working to help place women in leadership roles through The LEE Initiative, a nonprofit she co-founded in 2015 with Chef Edward Lee to promote equality and diversity within the hospitality industry. But when her fellow service industry workers were suddenly left with no jobs, she knew they had to act. Ofcacek and Lee turned the restaurant into a relief center for displaced workers within 24 hours; now, with the help of Maker’s Mark, they’ll have 14 centers across the country within the next few days. 

“Kentucky Maker's Mark brand ambassador Thomas Bolton and I have personally been working in the relief center here in Louisville handing out supplies and meals,” says Ofcacek. The supplies provided at the relief centers include diapers, wipes, baby food, nonperishable foods and toilet paper. In addition, they’re able to provide paid work to bartenders who come by to help pack boxes and hand out food, thanks to the brand funding. 

Outside of Louisville, The LEE Initiative’s Restaurant Workers Relief Program is available in Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle, among others, with more cities to be announced soon.

Adapting for Humanity

Many of those who are helping others are facing their own struggles and concerns as well. Huckman has dealt with a lot of introspection surrounding the survival of his business throughout this unprecedented time. “If and when we are allowed to reopen, what will capacity be? Will social behavior shift in new ways, in a world in which this virus has been contained but not eliminated? These are serious questions that will require our industry, landlords and government to come together to address,” he says. “The bar and restaurant business models of the past have been struggling already, and now they’re broken.” 

But, says Huckman, these are concerns that pale in comparison to workers’ immediate needs. “Whether or not Donna as a business can survive the financial impacts of the virus is secondary to feeding the workers who make this industry run every day and who now have been left with few safety nets and an unknown timeline in front of them,” he says. “As humans, as a city and as a country, it's the time to focus on meeting the basic needs of our people. We haven't been doing a very good job of that from my perspective, and now it's an opportunity to do better.”