When Maleeha Ghani, a bartender and server at Le Chien Noir, was laid off due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, some conversations she had with her colleagues hit her hard.
“I had a few conversations with coworkers from the kitchen and front of house that were heartbreaking. In this industry, we work with people of different experiences – we are talking different ages, different motivations – but all wanting to provide a seamless service. All wanting to make a living of the careers we are in,” Ghani said. “It was devastating for me to realize that, while I was lucky enough to have the experience I do, and the savings that I do, not everyone is in my position and therefore may not be ready for this. It broke my heart that I wasn’t able to help anyone.”
Later that day, Ghani found a project happening in Montreal: the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. That project was raising funds to be distributed to restaurant workers in need after restaurants and bars across the province and country were forced to close. With a model in place to follow, Ghani reached out to her fellow server and bartender, Bri Gordanier.
“Maleeah and I are both mothers to young children. I was at home caught up in my family life when she texted me a link to the Montreal project. She was really passionate about it, and she asked me if I wanted to help her do something similar here. I’ve got a background in equality studies and social sciences, and have a heavy volunteer background in the vulnerable sector,” said Gordanier, who also works at Le Chien Noir. “I had a look at the Montreal project, a city very dear to my heart having lived there while studying, and I jumped on the idea.”
Both women described the air of uncertainty they and their colleagues in restaurants and bars across the city have experienced in the past weeks, beginning with the cancellation of the Kingston Canadian Film Festival as both the federal and provincial governments urged residents to avoid large gatherings on Friday, Mar. 13, 2020.
“There was a very thick tension in the air. Were we safe? Were our families safe? What happens if we close? Do we have any choice?” Gordanier recalled.
By Wednesday, Mar. 18, 2020, restaurants across Ontario were forced to close as part of the protocol to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Restaurant owners are now making their best efforts to persevere, and we are hoping to have jobs to return to. Restaurant workers of varying situations and backgrounds are applying for EI and relying on savings to get through, indefinitely,” said Gordanier.
“We are all enduring this nightmare together. I’ve chosen restaurant workers specifically because this is the community I have broken bread with for roughly ten years between Ottawa and Kingston,” agreed Ghani.
Together, the two women created the Kingston Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, a GoFundMe fundraiser aimed at raising and delivering funds to those affected by the current situation. Noting that Kingston is a unique city filled with a large variety of restaurants, the two women chose to attempt to support the industry that is near and dear to them.
“The restaurant industry employs a pretty diverse set of people, with varying needs. We’ve heard a lot of different stories, all having the commonality of uncertainty. How long will we be without work, will we have to alter our long term plans, and will we be able to get through? The reality seems troubling,” said Ghani, noting that while the federal government has introduced the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that should kicking in soon, the funds they raise will be over and above those offered through the CERB.
“We live in a really unique and beautiful little city. It’s stolen both of our hearts in many ways. Kingston has a really high density of restaurants, and our restaurant culture is really engrained in our identities as Kingstonians,” Gordanier echoed. “We’ve had a lot of really positive interactions, feedback and support. There’s a real sense of community here, and our restaurants are dear to the hearts of the people, and that’s been really apparent for us in taking on this project.”
The pair kicked off the Kingston Restaurant Workers Relief Fund on Friday, Mar. 20, 2020, and said the response they’ve received from the local community has been positive. Since then, the fund has collected over $3,000, and all funds raised will be dispersed amongst those who apply for the fund.
“Everyone has been kind and supportive – which has been very uplifting in these otherwise dark times. It reminds me that we are in the business of making people happy because truly, the virtue and kindness of our guests fulfill us,” Ghani said. “I’ve been able to chat with a few donors after I’ve thanked them and I feel so lucky to be able to do so. This community is taking care of their local servers, cooks and dishwashers. We are so grateful.”
Both Ghani and Gordanier are hoping those in the community who can will help support their efforts.
This project is our way of saying we care to the people in our restaurant community who are in need of immediate financial assistance. We’re fully committed to doing our part to prevent the spread of this virus, as our workplaces have been as well. But in concrete terms, this means a lot of us are left with significantly reduced income, or no steady income at all. These funds would provide a small cushion to help insulate core essential needs to those who are struggling the most,” Ghani said.
“If you have disposable income during this time, and you would usually be enjoying our beautiful Kingston restaurants, why not take a little bit of that unspent income and give it to someone who is out of work to help cover the costs of essential things for their families?” she continued. “Every bit helps.”
For more information on the Kingston Workers Relief Fund during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.