The food service and hospitality arena was one of the industries hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic. Staff was laid off as restaurants sat empty and mom-and-pop shops closed permanently. The year 2021 brought ever-changing protocol regarding in-person dining capacities, mask mandates and vaccine requirements. Hundreds of small businesses in New York, especially restaurants, were left hurting for financial security and looking for assurance that another variant of COVID-19 would not shut operations down. Takeout became the main if not only source of revenue for many restaurants – especially as the winter months often did not allow for comfortable outside dining options.
Seeing their local restaurants struggling, Barbara Bolen and Carol Crowley of Northport, New York found that something could be done not only to inject cash flow into the restaurants, but also to help the community thoughtfully as well. The plan was simple: Buy a gift card to a restaurant and donate it to someone in need.
This movement, named the Takeout Project, found its way to Saugerties through Richard Walker, and as of today, the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce has generated thousands of dollars through the Saugerties Takeout Project. After establishing the program in February of 2021, the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce matched gift card donations up to the first $500 and donated $1,000 from the proceeds of the Sidewalk Art Auction to the cause.
“Saugerties is fortunate enough to have so many organizations and people who help families and individuals,” said Walker, Chamber of Commerce Board member. “We wanted to leverage these in order to effectively distribute to those Saugerties residents in need.”
Now in its second year, the program is hoping again to stimulate support for the local economy. Success can be measured by the hundreds of gift cards donated, as well as the overwhelming words of encouragement from the involved restaurants and grateful recipients.
Rhianna Williams, owner of the Main Street Restaurant, reported that her business experienced a rapid increase in gift card purchases in response to the project launch, and the clientele has diversified and expanded.
Collected gift cards are distributed to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, the Saugerties Area Council of Churches and the Saugerties Central School District. Jennifer Benedelius, a parishioner at the Council of Churches, is part of the team that has dispersed over 100 gift cards to families in need. The Council represents multiple churches in the area, and they come together during the holidays to run a toy drive. Toy drive recipients are also eligible for a takeout gift card. They flew through their recipient list last year.
“We received a thank-you card from someone that said they were really grateful and it lifted their spirits,” said Benedelius. “It’s amazing that this project is bringing the community together.”
The program has been promoted via word of mouth; social media, like the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce Facebook page; and posters that stores and restaurants are displaying in their windows. “Social media has been a powerful channel of communication for the program. Word of mouth has also helped support the program. It is such a win/win proposition that it sells itself,” said Walker.
The Saugerties Takeout Project has raised over $10,000 in gift cards so far: a high bar hoping to be surpassed in 2022. The number of donations has slowed, but there are still many struggling businesses that could use some influx of support.
The 2020 National Restaurant Association “State of the Industry” reported that more than 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed for business, temporarily or for good. The Hudson Valley was no exception to these losses. Restaurants like the Lis Bar in Kingston and Murphy’s in New Paltz have said goodbye to their regular customers because of pandemic effects.
“We saw restaurants close temporarily because of the lack of business, or because a staff member got COVID and they were forced to close as a precaution. We even had several restaurants shut down permanently because of a lack of business. Of course, this had a ripple effect on the local economy as more and more people faced joblessness and uncertainty,” Walker reports. “The fact is that restaurants are still recovering. On an individual basis, there are still people in need in Saugerties. We need to communicate that this program is still relevant.”
Spring and summer will bring welcome change as restrictions are eased nationwide, and restaurants may fare better than they did in 2020; but high gas prices and high cost-of-living expenses are still everyday struggles for people all over the country.
Organizations like the Boys and Girls Club felt that the small gestures added up to something big for their community members. They wrote to the Chamber saying that the program was a “great relief.” “We have been approached by other organizations interested in replicating our success to help those in their community as well,” said Walker.
The project will run open-ended and continue to spread the wealth as generous donations come in. Folks wanting to donate can leave gift cards at area restaurants or businesses for easy participation. Gift cards can be dropped at Smith Hardware, Town & Country Liquor, the Main Street Restaurant or Sawyer Motors for collection by the Chamber. They can also be sent in the mail to the Saugerties Chamber of Commerce, PO Box 731, Saugerties NY 12477.