As the COVID-19 threat reduced hours at coffee shops, restaurants and breweries — or increasingly, closed them entirely — two former restaurant workers looked for ways to help.
The results are two Virtual Tip Jars, online conduits to channel donations from grateful customers to the servers, cooks, bartenders, brewers and others whose livelihoods are suffering under the business restrictions imposed to battle the pandemic.
Since launching last week, the Southwest Virginia Virtual Tip Jar and Roanoke Valley Virtual Tip Jar have channeled thousands of dollars to hundreds of service workers at dozens of local businesses, said Russell Chisholm, a resident of the Giles County community of Newport who started the Southwest Virginia tip jar.
The tip jars are websites where people who want to help their favorite server or bartender, or just to generally assist some of the region’s out-of-work service crews, can donate money either to specific workers or — in the case of the Southwest Virginia Virtual Tip Jar — to a tip pool that is distributed in small amounts to all the workers who have signed up for it. Workers who have had their hours cut or been let go can enter their names to receive assistance through the sites.
Donors pay via PayPal, Venmo or Cash App.
Chisholm said Monday that he was spurred to act partly by his own experiences in the food and beverage industry. As a roaster at Strange Coffee Company, which supplies coffee to restaurants in Blacksburg and elsewhere, and owner of the former Easy Chair Coffee Shop in Blacksburg, which closed in 2011 after suffering through the recession, Chisholm said he knew firsthand the struggles that many employees are facing.
“Once a barista, always a barista,” Chisholm said.
Now a staff member with the Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights Coalition, Chisholm borrowed the idea for the tip jar websites from a Pittsburgh group and got the Southwest Virginia site started on March 17.
It quickly attracted so many people seeking aid —and a growing number of donations — that two days later, Chisholm’s co-worker, coalition Coordinator Katherine Wilkin of Roanoke, created the Roanoke Valley Virtual Tip Jar.
The Southwest Virginia Virtual Tip Jar focuses on the New River Valley, extending down to at least one listing in Galax, while the Roanoke Valley site is more Roanoke- and Salem-based.
Wilkin said that she too had been a restaurant worker and that presently, “a lot of my friends and family work in the food service industry.”
As of Monday, 349 workers had signed up on the Southwest Virginia site and 235 on the Roanoke Valley site.
Wilkin and Chisholm said they had no way — and no interest — in tracking how much money donors sent directly to individual workers through the sites.
“That’s between members of the community,” Chisholm said.
But the Southwest Virginia site also operates a Virtual Tip Jar Pool, through which donors contribute to the entire group of affected workers.
Chisholm said that the purpose of the pool is to steer a small amount of money to each worker who signs up. Initially, workers who entered their names through the site received $10 from the pool, Chisholm said. In the week that the site has operated, that amount has varied and will depend on numbers of people requesting aid and overall donations, he said.
By Monday, the pool portion of the Southwest Virginia Virtual Tip Jar had taken in $3,415, Chisholm said, and paid out $2,913.
Chisholm said he knew the pool payment wasn’t much, but if it helped with “a tank of gas or a phone bill so you can go back to work when the call comes,” it could be important.
John Bissey, general manager of Blacksburg’s London Underground Pub, said that as the novel coronavirus became more and more a part of daily life, he offered his staff the choice of whether to work or not, and most decided not to continue. With the pub carrying on with reduced hours — and facing complete closure after Gov. Northam announced new restrictions Monday — Bissey said he welcomed the virtual tip jar.
“It really is one of those things that warms your heart about living in this part of the country,” Bissey said.
Bissey said that he had been overwhelmed by similar assistance offered to the pub itself — individuals and businesses who had asked to give money toward future catering, meals or drinks.
Courtney Lavander, a former worker at The Cellar Restaurant & 6-Pak Store in Blacksburg, called the tip jar a morale booster as much as a financial help so far.
“It’s been tough. We tried to keep the restaurant open as long as we could,” Lavander said. “… It got to a point where we felt it was safer for both the public and staff, we went to delivery and takeout only.”
Lavander, who said her family of three includes a 5-year-old child, said she soon went from working 40 to 50 hours per week to seeking new employment. Lavander said she put her name on the tip jar list on a whim and soon received $22.
“It means a lot to us. … It almost puts a little tear in your eye,” Lavander said. “I’ve always been one to pay it forward and it’s great to see that it comes around.”