Kessler: Help restaurants by organizing, joining gift card exchange

A gift card good at Drift Fish House, Seed Kitchen and Stem Wine Bar.
A gift card good at Drift Fish House, Seed Kitchen and Stem Wine Bar.

Former AJC food and dining editor John Kessler drops in with an idea for how to help restaurants struggling through the coronavirus shutdown.

Hello, AJC readers. Some of you who can recall life before the sputum apocalypse may remember me as the former food writer and restaurant reviewer for this paper. I am writing to you from my home office in Chicago, looking out a window from which I see the empty schoolyard across the street. It is about 40 degrees and drizzly here, with gray skies and budless trees that feel like an outward manifestation of my state of mind.

This is going to be a long slog, isn’t it? Some of us have salaried jobs that can be conducted from home. Some of us may find ourselves furloughed or without the contract work we had just a week ago.

Like many, I am trying to figure out what I can do with all this extra time I have that does not involve binge-watching television or standing in front of an open refrigerator contemplating old cheese. Novels? I pick them up and put them down so I can return to the news. Exercise? Yeah, right.

I want to help people who are in graver financial danger than I am, and really few sectors of our economy are less secure than foodservice. Restaurant workers now account for 10% of the American workforce, but as their numbers have grown, nothing has been done to make their wages and benefits commensurate with their contribution to the nation’s economy. And now, in the past week, millions of them have been furloughed.

So what can I do from home? Well, I came up with one idea — a small one, but I have thrown myself into it. I have initiated a restaurant gift certificate exchange on the one platform where I can count on attracting a fair number of eyeballs: Facebook. The idea seemed simple enough. If everyone could buy a $50 gift card to a restaurant they love, then I could collect the gift cards, put them into a bingo ball machine and then redistribute them. Everyone could support a restaurant and also, hopefully, turn someone else on to it. So far, over 100 people have signed on.

A good friend from college politely mentioned that she thought I was spinning my wheels over something pretty small potatoes. She suggested I film some online cooking videos or join a task force to lobby state and locals governments to offer grants and stimulus packages to restaurant workers. She also noted that the gift cards would go to the restaurant owners, rather than the workers who find themselves suddenly without jobs. And how much money could I raise? A pittance or two?

I disagreed, politely. If the businesses go under, that’s bad for everyone. Plus, so many good people, like Billy and Kristin Allin of Bread & Butterfly and Proof Bakeshop are donating all proceeds from gift cards to their furloughed employees. Maybe the money raised is negligible in the big picture, but 100 cards will translate into $5,000 for restaurant economy. I’m catching up with old friends, making new ones, and learning a lot about Excel spreadsheets. But most of all, talking up good restaurants and the good people behind them is what I do best.

Maybe you would like to join me, and I would welcome connecting with you on Facebook. Or maybe you want to start a gift card exchange among your own friends. As I write this the governor of Illinois has just announced at stay-at-home order, effective immediately. So I'll be here with my cat, my old cheese and my spreadsheet. My efforts may not be much, but they're something.

Good luck to all of you.

John Kessler is the AJC’s former food and dining editor.

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