Asheville hospitality industry rallies support for struggling businesses, workers

DISPLAYING STRENGTH: Old Europe Pastries owner Melinda Vetro, right, displays her shop's support of the #AshevilleStrong website, where residents can purchase gift cards to nearly 650 local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also pictured, from left, are Alexis Zeigler, Hannah Mittman and Abbby Schrupp. Photo by Thomas Calder

When a natural disaster strikes a community,  the local food and beverage industry is a first-responder, jumping in to feed the displaced, set up mobile kitchens, deliver meals and support fundraising events. North Carolina’s sudden statewide shutdown of in-house dining and drinking on March 17 dealt a brutal blow to those for whom service is a calling.

“We’re not used to asking for help,” notes chef Katie Button. “But we need it now.” Below are some ways to extend a helping hand to the hands that serve Western North Carolina.

On Feb. 26 (aka BC19), Button, owner of Cúrate and Button & Co. Bagels, was celebrating her inclusion as one of five Asheville chefs and restaurateurs announced as semifinalists for the 2020 James Beard Awards. Three weeks later, in response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 17 order to close all restaurant in-house dining, she was furloughing her employees.

“The first week was all about shock,” she recalls. “Each of us was doing that thing flight attendants tell passengers: In case of emergency, put your own mask on first. Then figure out how to help others.”

Button says she latched onto, the legislative initiative launched by the Independent Restaurant Coalition and a dozen high-profile industry leaders to lobby Congress for support of local restaurants. “For me, the first thing was to help figure out how to get the federal aid package for small business passed,” she says.

She spread the word on social media and emailed lists of restaurant owners several times a day to join the call to action. “I’m sure they were all sick of hearing from me,” she says.

The IRC developed a list of three main types of assistance restaurants need to survive. “We haven’t gotten all of them, but the expansion of unemployment benefits is the biggest thing,” Button says. “And making sure that the guideline for relief to companies with 500 or less employees is looking at individual locations and not an entire hospitality group spread out over multiple locations. But this is just the first thing, and there is so much more to do.”

To get involved, sign up at


Catherine Campbell, owner of Asheville-based Bright Planning marketing and public relations company, makes it her business to plan ahead. So in early March, as ominous signs were looming for her food and beverage clients, she worked with them on strategies for preparing.

“We were talking about things like making sure they could offer gift cards, that merchandise for sale was on their website, how to set up their parking lot for takeout and delivery if they went that route, how to whittle down their menu,” she recalls.

Campbell noticed numerous social media posts from businesses announcing the intention to offer gift cards and realized there was no central, all-in-one directory to support the movement. “We knew this crisis went beyond our clients and out to the community at large, so it became a simple focus of getting all these businesses in one place and promoting that. It all kind of happened within 48 hours,” she says.

She launched the #AshevilleStrong website at 7 p.m. March 14 with a form for businesses to complete to be included in the directory. She woke up the next morning to dozens of submissions.

The website began with five categories and is now capped at nine, listing nearly 650 businesses as of March 30. Consumers click on their selected category, scroll through the businesses and follow the links to purchase a gift card directly from the seller.

Campbell notes that submissions are vetted as thoroughly as possible to avoid scams that have popped up in the wake of the crisis. “It helps that after 20 years here, I know easily half of the businesses applying,” she says. “Our mission is simple: to help our community in a time of crisis.”

Learn more at

New Belgium Brewing Co. relief fund

On  March 13, New Belgium Brewing Co. made the tough decision to close its tasting rooms in Asheville and Colorado to be proactive about protecting employees and patrons. Two days later,  says Michael Craft, the company’s Asheville community and communications ambassador, department heads brainstormed a plan via teleconference.

“It felt pretty natural to try to help take care of folks who were immediately impacted, who have been serving our beer for 29 years,” he says. “So we established the New Belgium Brewing Bar and Restaurant Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to laid-off and furloughed food and beverage workers in Asheville and Fort Collins [Colo.] in the form of grants of $350 per individual.”

New Belgium seeded the fund with $50,000 and invites socially distanced home drinkers and big businesses alike to log onto the site and donate. To donate, visit or text “NBBGives” to 44321.

New Belgium will match donations up to $50,000. Craft points out that none of the funds will go to NBB staff who are being paid during the layoff. To apply for a grant, visit

N.C. Restaurant Workers Relief Fund

The N.C. Restaurant Workers Relief Fund has been established and will be managed by the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, a nonprofit that has provided financial assistance to hospitality employees and students for more than a decade.

Any hospitality employee of a North Carolina restaurant or hotel facing significant financial hardship due to a furlough or reduction in hours as a result of COVID-19 is eligible to apply. Requests can be submitted through an online application available at


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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