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Struggling hospitality workers, restaurants get help for the holidays

Association grants, state bonuses provide some much-needed aid for an industry battered by COVID-19


Big Fish Grill in Rehoboth participated in November's "Save Our Jobs" campaign.
Big Fish Grill in Rehoboth participated in November’s “Save Our Jobs” campaign, posting this photo on Facebook.


Soon after restaurant dining rooms were limited to 30% of the fire code capacity in November, restaurant workers’ photos popped up on social media.

Masked employees held signs reading: “Save Our Jobs.”

They also flooded Delaware legislators with hundreds of emails.

The Delaware Restaurant Association was behind the industry advocacy campaign, which also included workers’ personal stories.

Nancy Blanco wrote to Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, about how devastating the restrictions and lower pay was.


“I have two daughters in college working in the restaurant industry,” Blanco wrote. “This loss of income is unnecessarily putting even more stress on them and our family.”

“People were worried about feeding their families and celebrating the holidays,” recalled Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the membership organization. “There was a lot of fear around.”

Consequently, the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (DRAEF) decided to fund the second round of its Emergency Action Trust, called DE EATs. After conducting a fundraiser on Giving Tuesday, the association gave direct cash grants of $365 each to 104 restaurant workers, many of whom participated in the campaign.

“We were able to go back to them and surprise them,” Leishman said. “Oh my God, it was so emotional. We were able to help people around the holidays.”

Most would agree that the hospitality industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and related restrictions.


Shortly after DE EATS grant distribution, Gov. John Carney announced additional relief funding for small businesses, including restaurants. Hospitality businesses that received funds from the DE Relief Grant will get a 50% bonus based on the original amount.

While some would say it’s not enough to save struggling jobs and businesses, it is more than many other states offer.

“When I look at it in hindsight, our counterparts in other states haven’t been able to accomplish what we have,” Leishman said. 

She pointed to Maryland, where several counties have banned indoor or outdoor dining. The Maryland restaurant association is suing. 

DE EATs began last March when Delaware restaurants were limited to takeout. Early contributors included the Beer & Benevolence Foundation, formed by Sam and Mariah Calagione, founders of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.


By May, the fund had raised more than $290,000 and distributed funds to more than 575 industry workers. But when restaurants were allowed to reopen, they needed employees back at work, not collecting unemployment. The DREAF halted the program.

For the second round, the fund received contributions from individuals and significant donations from Paula Janssen of Janssen’s Market and Kevin DiSabatino of DiSabatino Construction Company. 

Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Delaware’s contribution brought the total to $38,000. Michelle Souza, director of commercial on-premise sales, and Jim Miller, vice president and general manager, said the cause was one of the most important of their careers.

“There is no doubt that restaurants are the cornerstone of our communities, and as a civil society, we have a strong need for them,” Souza said. “The hospitality community has never ceased to amaze us.”

She said people in the hospitality industry could make their customers feel special with simple gestures of kindness.


“It was now our time to pay it forward to this hardworking and committed community,” she said.

Many of the DE EATS grant recipients are servers and bartenders who find it challenging to receive unemployment benefits that match their previous tips plus wages. Plus, the demand for carryout has kept many kitchen workers employed, explained Karen Stauffer, the DRA’s director of communications.

“Servers now have fewer tables, fewer shifts, and they aren’t working nearly as much,” she said. “Also, the loss of holiday parties is a huge hit all around.”

Meanwhile, the state’s new round of relief funding will bring another $26 million to the small businesses most affected by COVID-19 restrictions. The bulk will receive a bonus that is 20% of the original grant. Restaurants will receive 50%.

The bonuses are from the state and New Castle County, which contributed a portion of its CARES Act funds.


“We are so grateful to County Executive Matt Meyer,” Leishman said. “He did that to help all Delaware restaurants, not just those in New Castle County.”

The DE Relief Program initially had $100 million, said Damian DeStefano, director of Delaware’s division of small business. It is now $180 million. 

“These are all grants, not loans,” he noted. “The only reason a business would need to pay back funds would be if they did not meet eligibility requirements — most likely, the business did not end up making less in 2020 than 2019.”

The state also has the Hospitality Emergency Loan Program (HELP), which assists hard-hit businesses.

The DE EATs is still accepting donations. For information on the DE Relief Grant, go to 

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