No Reservations When restaurants shut, a community rallies

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On a typical morning, Dave Seel dispenses advice about applying for unemployment and shares announcements about restaurants offering free meals to out-of-work servers, bartenders and cooks.

A few months ago, Seel, owner of Blue Fork Marketing, a marketing and consulting firm for restaurants and small businesses, was sharing the good news about the newest ventures around the city. After the coronavirus pandemic spread through our state, Seel started the Facebook group Baltimore Restaurant Relief.

Within a month, it had more than 3,000 members. And Seel has turned his page into a nonprofit, as he sets out to help the area’s hospitality industry, one of the hardest hit by COVID-19-related closures.

“For the last nine years, I have worked in the food and beverage industry, more in the marketing side. I was marketing director for a restaurant group for four years here in the city and then moved to start my own business, which I now have been doing for just about the last five years,” Seel says.

But when the pandemic hit, 75 percent of his clients closed. Seel searched the James Beard Foundation website and listened in on a webinar about resources.

“One of the big things they said is that a lot of the advocacy and a lot of the relief efforts were going to be done at a grassroots level,” Seel says. “After doing a quick [online] search, I couldn’t really find anything that was providing the resources that we needed here in Baltimore. So I basically started the group as a way to provide that place.”

This crisis exposed a lot of the issues within the industry, Seel says. Many restaurants are small businesses that can’t afford to pay their employees’ health care; they have very slim margins and they have no safety nets. Seel wants to look at ways to make long-term change.

“The reality is that the food and beverage industry is not just about food,” he says. “It’s about supporting our community gathering places. It’s about supporting those venues that ultimately are the cultural fabric of our society.”

Who else is helping?

At the end of March, Central Baltimore Partnership rolled out a two-for-one style initiative that we’ve been seeing a lot of during this crisis.

The Square Meals Program provides meals for staff on MedStar Union Memorial Hospital’s COVID-19 floor and in the emergency department. The meals not only provide much-needed sustenance but are cooked by local restaurants, such as Bramble Baking Co., Carma’s Cafe, Clavel and Larder.

The program is completely supported by donations. For more information, visit centralbaltimore.org.
Restaurant groups, such as Atlas Group and Foreman Wolf restaurants, are donating 100 percent of the money from gift-card purchases to their staff. Atlas’ owners are even personally matching every gift-card purchase with their own donation.

Last month, Saval Foods, Acme Paper & Supply Co., H&S Bakery and Atlas partnered to give away groceries to those hospitality workers affected by the state’s closers. More than 500 bags of groceries were handed out with bread, milk, cheese, meat, water, vegetables and toilet paper, among other items.

Many restaurants in our area continue to offer curbside pickup. Check our website for listings.

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