The local food service industry was an early casualty of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Any restaurants that have managed to stay open are running on skeleton crews and earning a fraction of what they normally would. Julie Eastman has seen the devastation firsthand. 

As the executive director of the annual Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival (which has been postponed to October 22-25), she recently had to make numerous phone calls to tell vendors that the FWFWF would not be hiring them this spring.

The FWFWF supports the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, which disburses scholarships to aspiring food industry professionals. Charitable causes have always been the aim of Eastman’s festival, so she and the foundation’s board members recently started a $100,000 relief fund for unemployed employees of restaurants and bars.

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“It seemed obvious that we needed to do something,” Eastman said. “So many people are experiencing hardships from layoffs and having their hours cut. It’s an extreme hardship.”

Eastman said the first batch of checks could be in the hands of struggling food industry workers by Friday. Restaurant owners or general managers can apply online at on behalf of one or more employees who have been laid off due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The online questionnaire allows a volunteer panel from the foundation to rank applications by need. Priority will be given to food industry staffers who have children, ongoing healthcare needs, or elderly or disabled dependents at home.  

“Our panel members have no idea [of the identity] of the applicants,” Eastman said. “We are looking for people who can’t just get another job. If they have three kids, they can’t work for Tom Thumb temporarily because childcare may cost more than they make.”

The original goal was to give individual $500 grants. Many applicants have asked for smaller amounts, presumably to allow the funds to help a greater number of people, Eastman said. 

Disbursements of funds are only half of the equation. The Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation is asking for donations that will be sent directly to unemployed food service workers. Eastman has felt the strain of an economic downturn that has disproportionately affected Fort Worth’s food and beverage industry. The bootstrapping has highlighted the strengths of local restaurant and bar owners, Eastman said. 

“All of our restaurant partners had to lay people off and recreate themselves to become curbside delivery or takeout restaurants,” she said. “They are still trying to help. They may be making family menus where there wasn’t one. Fort Worth has been supporting Fort Worth. People are buying gift cards and directing people to support local restaurants. We would love to have more in the relief fund to give away. If people want to donate, we are happy to be a place where they can do that.” l

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