Independent restaurants turn to crowdfunding for survival

Restaurants in Southern California have turned to crowdfunding to limp through the end of the year as the novel coronavirus pandemic worsens and California’s shutdown of in-person dining continues.

“This is pretty much the only way we’re getting help,” said Theo Mavro, owner of The Sherman in Sherman Oaks, which shut down due to Los Angeles County’s closure of dining rooms in late November.

The Sherman’s campaign on the social platform GoFundMe has raised more than $12,000 toward a $20,000 goal since it started on Dec. 12.

“There’s only so much money in the bank. This really helps,” said Mavro. “It’s been very humbling.”

The Saugus Cafe in Santa Clarita, which according to some sources dates back to 1886 and is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles County, set up a GoFundMe campaign on the same day and has raised more than $12,000 on a goal of $10,000.

“It covered this month’s rent, and a little more,” said manager Jessie Mercado.

The $900 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on Monday, Dec. 21, did not target aid for restaurants.

Restaurateurs contacted for this story said their campaigns are their first experience with crowdfunding.

Gerry Kent, owner of the Public House in Temecula and Murrieta and Public 74 in San Juan Capistrano, said his campaigns are a way of reaching out to customers and saying, “Hopefully, we can all get through this together.”

His campaigns for each restaurant are raising money to be distributed among staff members. Collectively, they have raised more than $8,000 toward goals of $20,000 each.

According to Facebook posts, he wants to start distributing money before Christmas.

“Our hope is that by alleviating some of the financial stress and hardship ahead, we can show our gratitude to these incredible men and women who risk their health working in a pandemic to serve you,” the post reads.

Campaigns raised more than $625 million for pandemic relief between March 1 and Aug. 31, according to a data report from GoFundMe. Small businesses and unemployment accounted for 59.6% of the donations, followed by 19.4% for arts, education and daycare.

GoFundMe launched a small business relief initiative on March 25 that includes a $500 matching grant for businesses that qualify.

California ranks fifth in the number of fundraisers launched, following New York, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon, according to the GoFundMe data report.

Mavro said his campaign was easy to set up, but that he had to meet certain requirements before taking money out, including providing government-issued and bank identification.

“There’s somebody on the other end making sure you’re a legitimate company,” he said.

Crowdfunding campaigns are usually grass roots with customers and wait staffs spreading the word on social media with many donations in the $20-$50 range, although a campaign by the Long Beach Restaurant Association has received donations up to $500.

“Part of the reason we put this together is that members of the association were asked by their customers how they could help,” said organizer Alex Cherin. “This is a nice, cohesive, unified voice to help restaurant workers throughout the city.”

The campaign has raised more than $5,000 and plans to distribute funds on New Year’s Eve. The goal is to give 75% to kitchen staff and restaurant employees and 25% to offset costs for struggling restaurants.

But the need won’t end with the season of giving.

“If we have some success, we’ll keep the campaign open has long as the COVID restrictions are in place,” said Cherin.

GoFundMe isn’t the only online resource for restaurants. The James Beard Foundation has a campaign called Open For Good that supplies financial support to restaurant as well as educational resources and webinars. And has a COVID-19 resource page for creative people, including food artisans and entrepreneurs.

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