OXFORD • When Alena Tikhova, owner of Dodo Pizza in Oxford, started the Restaurant Workers Relief Center a month and a half ago, she knew the challenges facing laid off restaurant workers needed to be met by community efforts. She wanted to help pay off bills while encouraging the community to donate not only food, but also hygiene and baby care items.

“Oxford relies a lot on restaurants and the hospitality industry in general,” Tikhova said. “Right now, about 500 (restaurant workers], just in Oxford, have been laid off, so we started the Restaurant Workers Relief Fund just to help those people pay their bills.”

The center also has a food pantry. Since starting, they have been able to help 40 people with bills and see hundreds come to the pantry. The fund is limited to $200 in order to serve more people.

“We still have a list of about 60, 65 people and we receive new emails everyday,” Tikhova said. “Once we get more money donated, we immediately reach out to them (to) send out a check.”

Elsewhere in Oxford, Starkville and Tupelo, community members are also supporting service workers through grants, food packages and pantries, online groups addressing their needs, and fundraisers. While the re-opening of Mississippi restaurants is shifting the initial focus for these efforts, many believe the need will still remain.

Grants offered

When the coronavirus crisis hit, the Yoknapatawpha Arts Council was also thinking of ways to help. Executive director Wayne Andrews said the council gives out grants every year via the J.E. Pitts Fund. This year, YAC decided to offer the grants to local artists and restaurant workers.

“A lot of our artists also have careers in the restaurant business and restaurants are part of the creative community in Mississippi. When people talk about blues music in Mississippi, they also talk about our food,” Andrews said.

He said YAC hoped the grants could be coupled with other aids to help those in need pay bills, utilities and cover needs.

The arts council has tried to fill the arts gap by trying to offer stipends for online teaching and content, offering small, monthly grants to artists and restaurant workers and providing an online gallery for visual artists via their Stay@Home Festival, according to YAC’s website. So far, they have given out more than 100 grants and collaborate with other city entities to ensure services aren’t duplicated.

“Restaurants are on the frontline for giving to arts and culture. The bartenders are the first to donate time and help serve drinks at a charity event. The restaurants donate from everything like the food pantry up to an arts and cultural event, to the high school soccer team,” Andrews said. “For us to be able to give back when they’re in need and they’ve been there for us, we hope we’re able to do something that helps them and show them that we appreciate all they’ve done.”

YAC is facing some slowed donations due COVID-19 and must be strategic with their budget, but said they are working to support community partners by helping other areas in Mississippi host their own Stay@Home Festivals or helping other arts councils find funding. Andrews encourages those who want to assist their local arts community.

Online support groups

Social media has also become a tool to unite service workers with needs within the community to help them make ends meet. Toni Gough started the Facebook group Tupelo Community Needs after seeing efforts by local restaurants to find odd jobs for employees and raise funds. For Gough, who is not in the restaurant industry, the goal was to make sure Tupelo came together to support everyone so no restaurants would have to permanently close due to COVID-19.

“I don’t want to see any restaurant in Tupelo shut down because we have kind of become a foodie town,” Gough said. “I didn’t want to see anybody suffer from this because it’s scary for everybody, no matter what industry you’re in.”

The initial goal was to match needs such as yard work and grocery pick up, but the group has expanded to focus more on job opportunities and allow businesses to share their needs.

She was surprised by the community’s willingness to share and how quickly people were able to pitch in. She hopes the page continues to be a resource beyond COVID-19 and said she has been satisfied with its impact so far.

“I will never know how many people it helped or how many people it didn’t help, but if it can help one or two people find work out of this, I would be pleased with creating the group.”

Jimmy Redd started the Facebook page Starkville Strong when the crisis first hit. As a local musician, he knew many restaurant workers who were worried and started the page in order to allow them to promote GoFundmes or let local businesses and restaurants promote.

“A lot of my friends were out of work and I was feeling for them. At that time, they didn’t know they were going to be able to get unemployment benefits and a lot of self-employed people I know as well didn’t know that they were going to get all these different resources and stimulus checks,” Redd said.

Redd said many in the restaurant industry live paycheck to paycheck, and the wait and issues with filing unemployment inspired him to find ways to help them. Thanks to a founding donation from the Starkville Rotary Club, the group now offers Starkville CARES packages to help people most in immediate need, including finding food, supplying resources such as diapers, cleaning supplies and PPE, and using local businesses in order to purchase supplies.

A few also had added needs, such as worrying about how to feed service animals, filling medication or now having to find childcare. Starkville CARES has also had local restaurants and First United Methodist Church of Starkville donate gift cards, and have worked with Starkville Police Department and the Oktibbeha County Humane Society to obtain animal food for those in need.

Fundraisers

Nora Strickland noticed the impact to restaurants first-hand as a field representative for E & J Gallo Winery. Stickland said almost half of the company’s clients were restaurants and bars. Once her company began helping those in need by supporting nonprofits, she was inspired to also give back personally.

Strickland, who has previous fundraising experience, decided to start selling shirts for $30 to go towards helping restaurant employees not working near the end of March. So far, she has been able to raise thousands and given approximately 100 people funds.

“This was just a quick effort on my part to help the people who always take care of me,” Strickland said.

As funds came in, she tried to donate $300 to those in need, and said she started with restaurants that were completely closed. With restaurants re-opening and some employees now receiving government aid, Stickland said she foresees the fundraiser ending.

JCG Apparel, a retail store with Mississippi locations in Oxford and Starkville, is offering custom T-shirts for local restaurants. Restaurants must email sales@jcgapparel.com to apply, and JCG apparel will make a design and have the shirts available for pre-order.

Restaurants receive $8.50 per shirt and can keep the shirt online for as long as they want, said social media and marketing director Shelby Marsh. It is a year-round offer, but Marsh said they wanted to reach out to restaurants to give them another way to fundraise during this time.

“We want to give back in as many ways as we can and support our own community, so this was our biggest way to make sure (we’re able to) give back to these restaurants and support their employees and keep their business running as smoothly as possible and as normally as possible,” Marsh said.

The local community has responded well, Marsh said. They typically receive hundreds of orders in the first few days, and said restaurants can determine how to use their portion of the proceeds to best help their business and workers.

There are currently 10 T-shirt designs for Oxford and three for Starkville, but Marsh said they are working on more designs and hope they can help publicize as many restaurants as possible. They accept any and all restaurants who apply.

Ongoing needs, ways to helpDespite restaurants now being able to re-open their dining rooms, there will still be workers who will require assistance. Tikhova noted that when restaurants re-open, they will have to work with limited staff for safety reasons and due to decreased demand. Her own business once offered delivery until 2 a.m., but now closes at 9 p.m. because the need is not there.

The biggest challenge is the students and professors that local restaurants and businesses rely on for business didn’t return, Tikhova said. She has known some restaurant owners who have closed for good and knows about 100 people using unemployment to try to get by. As a business owner herself, she has seen the need first-hand with dropped sales and less money in tips. She worries that if students don’t return in the fall, some employees won’t be able to go back to work.

Redd had similar concerns for Starkville and said he created Starkville Strong partially due to concerns that businesses might not recover without help.

“I was worried the Starkville restaurant industries and other industries in town would have to be shuttered because this is their prime earning season,” Redd said. “They’re going to lose out over the summer, so I worried that they may not be able to last until August.”

Redd said those who are at risk or work in high-risk businesses may fear going back and would require aid due to no longer being eligible for unemployment if they chose not to return to work. With the decrease in business, servers will not receive as many tips. He noted that there can be a stigma around businesses re-opening.

Local food pantries in Starkville are seeing an increased need, and Redd said they look to working with the United Way of North Central Mississippi to support their efforts.

People can donate or apply for CARES packages by emailing jimmyredd66@gmail.com. Only Starkville residents are eligible.

Tikhova has been surprised by local support of the Restaurant Workers Relief Center. The community has continued to provide donations and meet needs, and several of those aided by the center have told Tikhova how the center helped them pay bills.

“We’re still accepting any donations to keep our pantry full, but as for right now, it’s been great and people have been extremely grateful for all we’ve done with the help of our community,” Tikhova said. “We are just being the middleman here and (helping connect) those people who need help (with) those who want to donate and those who have a chance to donate who haven’t lost their jobs.”

The center is open from 4 to 9 p.m. daily at 614 Jackson Ave. E, Oxford MS 38655. Tikhova can be reached at a.tikhova@dodopizza.com or (662) 801-6580 for assistance at any time.

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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