A nonprofit pivots from in-person to digital relationships to serve those hardest hit by the pandemic

A simple yet radical idea

In 2009, Kevin Finch—then a food writer and restaurant critic based in Spokane, Washington—felt nudged by a simple yet radical idea.

As he cultivated relationships with people across the food service industry, Finch began to catch glimpses of the challenges these individuals face—challenges they usually keep well-hidden behind the smile we all expect from those in the hospitality industry.

But that cheery disposition often belies a staggering truth. The low barrier to employment in the restaurant industry means that it often attracts the most vulnerable in our society: those struggling with addiction, housing security, and mental health issues; at-risk populations including marginalized teens and ex-felons; and undocumented immigrants who need to work despite the fear of discovery and deportation.

And consider this: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage in 2019 for the 10.8 million people employed in the restaurant industry was $26,600, including tips.[i] That’s only $400 above the poverty line for a family of four.[ii] In fact, the annual income for 43% of those in the restaurant and hospitality industry falls below the basic survival income level set by economists.[iii] No other working population struggles with this level of poverty.

And these are pre-pandemic figures. To date, more than eight million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed. This means two out of every three food service workers have lost their jobs. According to the National Restaurant Association, “the restaurant industry, more than any other industry in the nation, has suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 outbreak began.”[iv]

Even before the pandemic, having one full-time job in the restaurant industry was rare, so people often worked two, three, and even four part-time jobs to cobble together a meager income. And what about paid sick leave? Or employer-provided health insurance? As hourly wage earners, these benefits are not available to most workers.

But back to those pre-pandemic days, as Finch spent time in restaurants across Eastern Washington listening to people’s stories of broken marriages, relapses in addiction recovery, financial hardship, and the stresses of life without a safety net. As he listened, he had this thought:

How could we be of service, in real and meaningful ways, to those who work so hard—despite their own staggering levels of need—to serve us?

Serving those who serve us

Finch answered this question by founding Big Table, a nonprofit organization dedicated to caring for those in the restaurant and hospitality industry who are in crisis, in transition, or in danger of falling through the cracks. And as the industry reels from the repercussions of the pandemic, those cracks have grown exponentially.

Now with locations in Spokane, Seattle, and San Diego, Big Table focuses not just on quick fixes to immediate needs, but on building lasting relationships with the people who are referred to them for assistance. “You can't ask for help for yourself,” explains Finch. “We use a referral model because often the folks who have the greatest need are the least likely to ask for help. They either don’t know how to ask, or feel ashamed, or they might be afraid to stick their head up in any way, shape, or form—an undocumented immigrant, for example. So, a person must be referred to us by someone who already knows them, who works alongside them, who has a relationship with them.”

In the last two months alone, 805 people have been referred to Big Table for assistance with housing stability and food security. “To put that in perspective, we supported 733 individuals total in 2019,” says Chris Deitz, City Director for Big Table in Spokane. “We’ve also connected with over 200 new individual and company partners—including counselors, dentists, mechanics—who are generously aiding Big Table in responding to the needs of those in our communities.”

Relationships—and technology—in the age of social distancing

Since the beginning, the relationship-driven model has been at the heart of Big Table. “Relationships change lives,” Finch says. “Crisis care is important, and we partner with a lot of wonderful organizations who provide crisis intervention. But we believe that relationships—and the care that we show to one another over time—is what changes people’s lives in the long term.”

In keeping with this focus, Big Table decided early on that it needed to use technology not only to track numbers, but transformations. “We created a database called Remember that is optimized for tracking relationships,” Finch explains. “Every time we have an encounter with a person that we’re caring for, that gets tracked. But we also track the trajectory of transformation in a person’s life—from crisis through each stage of their journey. Life isn’t binary—homeless or housed, struggling with addiction or not. Life is a complicated, miraculous story. So yes, we track numbers. But we also track relationships.”

Due to COVID-19, Big Table now faces the question of how to continue providing the kind of direct, human-to-human connection that has grown to characterize its outreach. Rather than inviting those referred for assistance to share their stories over a cup of coffee or checking in with a care recipient over lunch, Big Table is shifting to a triage approach where the human connection is powered by technology. “There’s more need now than there ever was,” says Deitz. “But with social distancing as our reality, we had to figure out how to use technology to communicate as personally as possible and to continue making strong relational connections.” 

When Brian Julagay, a Senior Drafter/Designer for F5, Inc., heard that his company was offering technology grants to nonprofits affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, he shared the news with his wife Jodie, a Care Engagement and Volunteer Coordinator for Big Table. “One of the coolest things about Big Table is that they keep in contact with those they help to see how they’re doing—sometimes checking in for years after the initial outreach,” says Julagay. “This ongoing relationship care is at the heart of Big Table. And now—with social distancing and the Big Table team all working remotely—they will need to rely even more heavily on technology. Jodie and I were excited that this grant from F5 could help Big Table build and strengthen relationships with people in need, especially those in the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.”

Grants that are specifically designated for technology needs are rare, so Finch and team jumped at the opportunity. Big Table applied for and received a $10,000 F5 Global Good “Tech for Good” COVID-19 Response grant and put it to immediate use—upgrading antiquated laptops so that employees can connect with one another and with care recipients over Zoom; and purchasing cameras, lighting, backdrops, a teleprompter, and other equipment to enable live-streaming events. “The grant is making it possible for us to stay connected—virtually face-to-face, if not in person—with those we’re caring for,” Finch says. “And this technology will also make it possible for us to capture and share the stories of people who’ve been helped by Big Table.”

Big Table has big plans

Given the impact of the pandemic on the restaurant and hospitality industry, there are more people in need than ever before. “Our goal is to be in 10 cities in 10 years,” says Finch. “While our relational care model is totally dependent on assembling the right team and the right community support, we know the need is there. We’re currently looking for ways—including the use of technologies that build and enhance relationships—to grow as quickly as possible.”

About F5 Global Good “Tech for Good” COVID-19 Response Grants

F5 Global Good is built on three pillars: supporting the causes that employees are most passionate about in communities around the world, helping to build the pipeline of tomorrow’s changemakers and future leaders through STEM education impact grants, and supporting nonprofit organizations with their digital transformation efforts through Tech for Good impact grants. F5 recognizes that grants to help nonprofits with tech-specific needs are crucial—especially now that we’re relying on technology to keep us all connected while we practice social distancing. As part of its COVID-19 Response efforts, F5 has awarded $250,000 in Tech for Good grants to nonprofits in Australia, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and the U.S. Grant recipients are using these funds to bolster their technology infrastructures, making it possible for them to streamline administrative efforts, improve data security, and—most importantly—expedite their missions so they can do even more to help those they serve. 

  • Type of Grant: “Tech for Good” COVID-19 Response Grant
  • Industry: Restaurant and Hospitality
  • Organization Size: ~18
  • Country: United States