In the days before restaurants shut down in the Philadelphia region, Cheryl Molle saw the fear from servers who depended on each shift to keep them afloat.

So arose the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund, which plans to give 10 recipients around $400 a week for four weeks, but the goal, Molle said, is to be able to assist more servers.

Molle talked to a range of servers while setting up the Facebook fund requesting donations. Diner servers typically earned around $400 a week, she said, while those at more upscale eateries could earn around $600.

“Servers are really the only people at restaurants who are paid $2.83 an hour,” Molle said Wednesday.

To be considered for funding, servers must be full-time and have no other job. Recipients are taken first-come, first-served. Only servers who work in Philadelphia are currently eligible.

The fund drive started last Friday. It was an initiative of Molle and fellow activists Venise Whitaker, a constituent service representative for Philadelphia Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and Humphrey Jones, a social worker concentrating on state parole and probation.

On Sunday, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered restaurants and bars in Allegheny, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties to shut down dine-in operations, although they could still provide carry-out, delivery, and drive-through service. Dozens of Philadelphia restaurants closures soon followed.

Forty-two people immediately submitted applications to the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund. It now has more than 160 applicants.

Carrie Schweitzer's hours as a server have been cut down to four hours, one day a week.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Carrie Schweitzer's hours as a server have been cut down to four hours, one day a week.

Carrie Schweitzer, a server at a restaurant on Grant Avenue in the Northeast, is expecting a $400 check from the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund.

“That’s our biggest godsend,” Schweitzer said. “Without this fund, I’m not even sure I’d be able to make it.”

Scores of other relief funds have sprouted up, largely for food service workers. Baristas from Starbucks, as well as locally owned shops like Ultimo and Elixr, are raising money through Venmo. A fund for Green Line Cafe workers raised $1,400 as of Tuesday through Venmo. The Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for restaurant workers’ rights, opened its own fund, as did union UNITE HERE, which has seen nearly 80% of its members lose their jobs because of the epidemic.

The efforts, which are being run by workers and community members rather than institutions, align with the spirit of “mutual aid” that has flourished during the pandemic. Hundreds in Philadelphia have signed up on a Google form called “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” to help community members in need — whether it means picking up groceries for an elderly person who can’t leave the house or donating money directly — with no expectation of payment or a return favor from the person in need.

Tamara Baldwin, a youth organizer in Philadelphia who helped launch the Neighbors Helping Neighbors form, said these relief funds and efforts are a response to the fact that institutions, like the government, have failed people.

“We know that if we want to see as little casualties as possible, then we have to take those steps on our own and not just sit back and wait for the [Kenney] administration to make decisions for us,” said Baldwin, 23, of West Philadelphia.

The Kenney administration announced Thursday that city government had partnered with the private sector and philanthropic organizations to launch a PHL COVID-19 fund.

Longtime server Eddie Fong makes sure silverware is spotless while preparing for dinner service at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Longtime server Eddie Fong makes sure silverware is spotless while preparing for dinner service at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square.

The Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund has raised more than 90% of its $21,000 goal. The goal amount will keep increasing by a couple thousand dollars once the prior goal is nearly reached for two reasons, Molle said.

“When you reach your goal, people stop donating,” she said.

And Facebook takes a 2.6% cut from each donation, she said, plus an extra 30 cents each for clearing the transaction and releasing the money to the fund.

The largest donation to date is $500, she said, of which Facebook would take $13.30. The smallest contribution has been $5.

Facebook hadn’t yet cleared donors’ transactions, Molle said, but hoped the fund would receive the money by Friday.

“After the shutdown, everyone who’s applying said, ‘I don’t know how to pay my rent,’” Molle said. “They’re saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to keep my cell phone on or my utilities on.’”

Ahmad Mitchell, who just started a new job as a line cook at Spice Finch in January, is now, too, among the crowd of restaurant employees out of work.

Mitchell, a 19-year-old studying culinary arts at the Community College of Philadelphia, was excited when he started at Spice Finch. It was a high-end Rittenhouse restaurant run by a famous Philly chef, and it paid $13 an hour, a $2 an hour raise from his last job at the fast-casual Honeygrow. He worked 25 to 40 hours in back to back double shifts throughout the weekend.

Ahmad Mitchell at home in North Philadelphia is a line cook who lost his job because of the coronavirus .Wednesday, March 18, 2020. “The coronavirus has been spreading across the globe since January, and now has been identified in the Philadelphia region.”
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Ahmad Mitchell at home in North Philadelphia is a line cook who lost his job because of the coronavirus .Wednesday, March 18, 2020. “The coronavirus has been spreading across the globe since January, and now has been identified in the Philadelphia region.”

But because of the effects of the coronavirus, he’s no longer at Spice Finch. He worked his last shift for the foreseeable future on Sunday.

The restaurant gave him some food to help tide him over. An organizer with One Pennsylvania, a worker group he’s part of, recommended he apply for unemployment. But he didn’t want to be idle: He’s trying to get a job at FedEx right now.

Mitchell, who’s been working since he graduated from Central High School, lives with his parents in the North Philly home where he grew up. His mother is a retired school teacher, and his father works for Philadelphia Gas Works. He helps them pay household bills.

But Mitchell said he knew that not everyone was fortunate enough to have support from their family. He hopes the city will set up a relief fund for workers in a crisis like this, especially for workers who live paycheck to paycheck.

“It’s important that the people of Philadelphia don’t feel like they’re being abandoned,” he said.

For workers out of a job in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Molle, Whitaker and Humphrey, the organizers behind the Philly Restaurant Server Relief Fund, have discussed expanding the fund’s reach into the city’s collar counties, but their priority is currently on the city itself.

A pedestrian walks past Market Street in Dilworth Plaza along 15th Street on the first day of the shutdown of nonessential businesses.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A pedestrian walks past Market Street in Dilworth Plaza along 15th Street on the first day of the shutdown of nonessential businesses.

"Philadelphia has such deep poverty compared to other areas just outside Philadelphia," Molle said. "It's more devastating."

Servers have applied for unemployment, she said, but even so, the process to receive funds can take up to four weeks.

“For four weeks, they’re not going to have any income whatsoever,” she said. “They’re extremely concerned about how they’re going to survive this. When you’re living on day-to-day tips and you can make $60, 70, 80, 100, and all of a sudden you don’t have work and you’re making $0 a day, it’s a concern.”