More Than Just Food: Local Restaurant Owners Support Employees and Community During COVID-19
Red Letter Hospitality uses efforts like their Employee Relief Day do help in difficult times
What started as a fun project for Billy Lewis and Greg Brown has turned into a powerful force in the Erie restaurant industry: Red Letter Hospitality (RLH). In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the owners are getting creative, finding solutions to help employees who have been laid off since Gov. Wolf's Mar. 16 order to close all non-essential businesses.
On Saturday, March 28 Red Letter hosted an Employee Relief Day. During business hours, 25 percent of take-out food sales, 50 percent of merchandise sales, and 100 percent of gift card sales were donated to the fund to be distributed equally amongst employees. In one day, RHL was able to raise $28,000 for employees.
"The whole vision behind Red Letter," Annē Lewis, Director of Marketing at RLH, said, "is to make sure that we are incredibly community-oriented. And by doing that, we just decided our mission [was that] our employees be our first priority, our first everything in order to gain the support behind everything [else]."
The fund provides $140 per person, distributed between the nearly 200 employees in their three locations throughout Erie County — The Cork 1794, Molly Brannigan's, and The Skunk and Goat Tavern — and one in the Cleveland area.
"Even if we could give $25 we would have given $25," Lewis explained. "But the fact that we were able to give $28,000 to our employees was just really, really exciting for us, and I know just how much it's appreciated [by] our crew as well."
Though it might not seem like much, anything makes a difference in these unprecedented times. In the U.S., almost 17 million people have filed for unemployment in recent weeks, with nearly 1.1 million in Pennsylvania alone.
"Just the gesture of them going out and doing that for us lets us know that we've been on their minds and in their hearts," Tracey Ferry, a server at The Cork 1794 told Erie Reader, Friday morning. "And it's inspiring … we all want to get back to work faster — because we're going stir crazy at home — but we (also) really want to go back to a company that lets us know how much we mean to them."
So while the Employee Relief Fund is a one-time contribution to RLH employees, Brown and the Lewis family are providing family meals on Saturday afternoon for employees who sign up to take home to feed their households over the weekend.
"I feel like we're all in it together," Lauren Parent, the bar manager at Molly Brannigan's, said. "The brand has been able to pull all of its employees together to feel like a family."
"I think it's just going back to our mission and the root of who we are," Lewis told the Erie Reader. "Anything that we could do to show [employees] and let them know that we're feeling their pain and thinking about them. That's why we're trying to keep our doors open; so that they can come back to a place that has a full, energized crew and really has the excitement to reopen."
Like every other business in the state, the reopening date is still undetermined. Gov. Wolf has extended the stay-at-home order until April 30. Should businesses be able to reopen at that point, Red Letter will have been closed for six weeks.
This is something no one could have planned for, Lewis said.
In lieu of regular operations, Red Letter has still been open for take-out diners, as many local restaurants are. RLH is also collecting donations from community members to provide meals for local healthcare workers.
As Easter approaches and it seems no end is in sight, RLH is preparing to offer Easter diners as take-out as well.
"I feel like it's more than just food right now," Parent concluded. "It's amazing how food can bring people together during hard times, good times, whatever. Food is always a constant for celebrations. [And] I feel like, in a way, this pandemic is really making us realize what matters and who we really want to be supporting."
Hannah can be found whittling away the hours at her keyboard after being let go from her own serving position with RLH due to coronavirus. She'll be inside until further notice, but has a Twitter should you wish to reach out.