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WNY restaurant workers helped by relief fund give thanks

In the toughest time for restaurants since the Great Depression, Buffalo-area patrons have stepped up to support workers through the Western New York Hospitality Relief Fund to the tune of $25,000.

So far, the fund has helped 18 workers, at $750 each, and is helping another eight, said Jill Gedra, a board member of Family Meal Hospitality Trust, the newly founded restaurant worker aid group administering the aid program.

While temporarily enriched unemployment insurance payments have given some workers adequate financial support, others don’t qualify for enough government aid or have more bills to pay. Some of the workers who have gotten help have posted videos to social media to thank donors and encourage ongoing support for the effort.

Brenna DiSarno, floor manager at West Rose, Ellicottville, said that her unemployment was enough to cover rent and utilities, but she didn't know what she was doing for groceries. The Hospitality Trust grant lifted "a huge weight off my shoulders," DiSarno said.

Jennie Oestreich, a server and bartender at Inizio on Elmwood Avenue, said the grant helped her out of a jam, and was "really heartwarming. It's really sweet. See you out there soon," she concluded on a note of optimism.

“These people are hard workers. They like to sweat. They like long hours,” said Gedra, a former restaurant owner, now a Sysco sales representative. “Sitting on your couch, the first couple days, it’s great. The third week, you're like, ‘Oh, shoot me.’ We're social people. We can't see people. So it's devastating.”

Gedra and a small group of current and former restaurant industry workers developed the idea for the organization more than a year ago after holding benefits to honor culinarian and television star Anthony Bourdain.

"We're still in our infancy stage," Gedra said. "We just finally got our tax ID number, 501(c)(3) approval. Our website just got built." Like the restaurant industry as a whole, "we were not ready for any of this to happen."

Contributions to the fund are welcomed, and will be put to the same use of supporting restaurant workers so they're here and ready to go when the city needs them again, Gedra said.

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