Last year as the pandemic shattered the restaurant and hospitality industry from top to bottom, one nonprofit that started here in Spokane over a decade ago was ready to help. Big Table — which now has care teams not just here, but in Seattle, San Diego and Nashville — launched in 2009 for a simple reason. There wasn't a single nonprofit nationally caring for those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Not one. Out of 1.5 million nonprofits registered with the IRS.
NEED HIDDEN BEHIND SMILES The reason this statistic is so stunning is that the restaurant and hospitality industry is one of the largest in the nation. It is also the lowest rung on the employment ladder, so it concentrates all of the most vulnerable demographics in our community: single parents, at-risk teens, immigrants, income-insecure seniors, those rebuilding their lives after incarceration.
What Big Table does is straightforward: respond quickly to crisis needs and then provide ongoing relational support and mentoring. For Jadyn, a server at Masselow's, that meant helping with basic expenses when he was diagnosed with stage-four throat and mouth cancer and then walking alongside him through a long painful recovery.
"Big Table gave me hope, support, love and a second chance on life. No way I would have beat stage-4 cancer without this amazing group of people," Jadyn says, adding that the worst part ironically was after the cancer was beaten — the challenge of putting his life back together. "And Big Table has always been there for all of that, too," he says.
BEYOND THE PANDEMIC
During the height of the pandemic, the needs of those in the industry were well-covered by news reports. Yet the underlying causes that have kept nearly half of those working in restaurants and hotels barely above the official poverty line for decades have not gone away as the economy reopens.
With this poverty comes so much more — some of the highest levels of addiction, chronic stress, pervasive mental health struggles and broken relationships. The result for so many in the industry is hopelessness.
"What we really do is serve hope," says Kevin Finch, the executive director and founder of Big Table.
GIVING LOCALLY FOR CRISIS NEEDS
Even though Big Table is growing nationally with a vision to be in 10 cities by 2029, if you give financially to Big Table, your gift stays here locally to meet critical practical needs. Think rent to keep a family from being evicted, groceries to keep a family fed while a parent is unable to work, support to see a therapist, a bus pass or car repair to keep someone from losing their job, or in Robbie's case, new teeth.
Robbie was a cook and an Inland Northwest Culinary Academy student who had a meth problem that left his teeth severely rotted. Although he had been sober for 10 years, his teeth kept him stuck in his job, hiding his teeth and eternally labeled an addict. His teacher at the culinary school referred Robbie to Big Table because he was "the greatest guy, he just needs teeth."
Big Table was able to help give Robbie a new set of teeth, and today Robbie smiles without a care and has a thriving career in graphic design. "To have someone pull me out of that darkness is something I will never forget," Robbie says.
JOIN THE MOVEMENT
"I love that Big Table started here in the Inland Northwest," Finch says, "but the same needs we see locally are in every city in the country. So we are working to build a movement, not just an organization."
If you eat out or occasionally stay in a hotel, Big Table wants you to become part of this movement to care. "You start the second you realize that so many of those most in need locally serve you when you go out," says Chris Deitz, Big Table's Spokane city director. "Then you simply look for ways to let them know you care." Big Table has a whole page on their website (big-table.com) of ways you can engage immediately. "Try simply tipping well and adding a brief note of thanks or a compliment on your receipt," Finch suggests. "Or give one of the staff a Big Table 'Unexpected 20.'"
An Unexpected 20 is a lot like what you might guess — a $20 bill that is a surprise. You put it into a small envelope from Big Table that thanks the person for their work and lets them know you noticed them. You can request pre-printed envelopes from Big Table or print out a DIY version from the website.
"As a former chef, I try to give them to dishwashers or bussers, cooks or hosts ... those that don't usually get tipped ... or I ask my server that I'm tipping well to give it to the co-worker who is struggling the most," Deitz says.
"If you go out during Restaurant Week," says Finch, "know that nearly every restaurant now is massively understaffed and give them grace. And let them know you know it is challenging." ♦
Learn more about Big Table and how you can get involved by visiting big-table.com.