Guy Fieri helps launch relief fund for laid-off restaurant industry workers

Whether you're a dishwasher, line cook, server, bartender or a James Beard Award-winning chef, everyone in the restaurant industry has an above average risk of losing their job right now.

Since the novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic, restaurants nationwide have been forced to close. "As of March 1, the industry has lost 3 million jobs and $25 billion in sales," said Rob Gifford, President of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF).

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America

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Gifford told TODAY Food he estimates that by the time "this thing peaks," 5 to 7 million restaurant employees could be laid off. That's why, for the first time in history, the National Restaurant Association's charitable arm, the NRAEF, is starting a relief fund for restaurant workers.

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"Restaurant Relief America" was announced last week, but the online application for the $500 individual grants opened on April 2. The very famous face of the campaign's fundraising efforts belongs to Food Network star Guy Fieri.

"Guy heard we were forming a relief fund and wanted to partner with us," said Gifford. "He's been a fantastic partner since he's so passionate about the project."

So far, the project has raised $9 million — 100% of which will be distributed to impacted restaurant workers in one-time checks. While most of the initial seed money came from corporate sponsors including PepsiCo, Uber Eats and P&G Professional, Gifford said they're seeing a lot of $5, $10 and $25 donations come in from individuals as well.

According to Gifford, the RERF.US website, where the public can make donations and restaurant workers will be able to apply for the grants, is attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a day. The number continues to climb as Fieri does the media circuit.

"My entire career has been in the restaurant business," Fieri said in the Restaurant Relief America press release. "From bussing tables to flambe captain to dishwasher to chef ... I've done it all. I've also spent the better part of the last 15 years traveling this great country meeting other folks who've dedicated their lives to this business and let me tell you something, they are the hardest working, most real deal workers you've ever met ... the heartbeats of their communities."

To meet Restaurant Relief America's requirements, grant applicants have to do is prove they've worked in the restaurant industry for at least 90 days in the past year, it's been their primary source of income and they've lost their job or wages on or after March 10.

"We're not saying one person's story is better than another's," said Gifford. "If you're eligible and you apply and we have funds available then we'll fund you."

The first-come, first-served basis system was chosen so that the maximum number of people could be helped as quickly as possible. According to Gifford, his team is going to be "ferociously fundraising" and "maniacally reviewing applications" at the same time.

Applications opened on April 2 and the $500 grants will be handed out for as long as funding lasts.

For those who can't afford to make monetary donations, Gifford suggested spreading the word.

"We really want the American people to rally behind this effort and make others aware," he told TODAY. "We made the website highly shareable, so even if you can't contribute yourself, hopefully you know someone who can."

Of course, he also recommended ordering from restaurants offering delivery service if your budget allows for it.

"Most people are homebound and preparing their own food right now, but if you can remember your local restaurant every once in a while, that's great, too."

It's important to note that, somewhat ironically, the National Restaurant Association has a history of fighting paid sick leave and minimum wage increasesfor restaurant workers.

When TODAY asked about their record and current stance on the matters, Sean Kennedy, Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the National Restaurant Association sent this statement via email: "This is an unprecedented moment for the country, creating extraordinary challenges for everyone. Restaurant employees are essential to the survival of the industry, and that's why the National Restaurant Association supported the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, both of which create support for restaurant employees. Right now the industry is united to help restaurants and employees, and the future will look very different for the country and for the industry after this experience."

A publicist for Guy Fieri said he was too busy raising money to comment.