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Helping Restaurant Workers With No Reservations And No Judgement

Hospitality aid nonprofit Big Table is looking to expand its full-contact approach beyond three cities.

Jesse Vigil is San Diego’s city director for the nonprofit organization Big Table. Founded in 2009, the resource and referral agency is designed to assist vulnerable individuals working within the restaurant and hotel industry. At present, the organization operates in Seattle, Spokane, and San Diego, with plans to expand.

Prior to joining Big Table, I was working as a youth pastor at a megachurch, where I delivered sermons and played a lot of dodgeball with 220 middle-schoolers. And while I loved working with those kids, I love my own kids even more. I wanted to transition into a new career that I felt more passionate about.

My wife and I love going out to eat. We like trying new foods, and we have an extensive palate. Part of the dining experience that we enjoy is the customer service. We love interacting with the people who work in the industry, which, for us, is the fun part of a normal night out.

For one of my very first jobs, I worked as a busser in Northern California. I got a behind-the-scenes look at a restaurant kitchen, everything that goes into providing dinner service, and into the lives of the people involved.

When I saw the job announcement that Big Table needed a city director in San Diego, the light bulb went on. The tagline on the job posting was “serving those who serve you.” I thought this was an amazing opportunity to to do that, and now here we are.

Our executive director Kevin Finch worked as a food critic in Spokane, Washington, when he founded Big Table in 2009. At the time, he was writing restaurant reviews, and he got to know the people working there—not just the executive chefs, but the line cooks and the dishwashers. He realized that running a restaurant was difficult for everyone.

He looked into donating money to a nonprofit organization tailored to the needs of employees in the restaurant and hotel industry. After a quick search, he determined there were a million and a half nonprofits registered with the IRS. There were lots of nonprofits focused on dogs and cats, but none with a focus on the employees within this industry.

He launched Big Table by hosting an event with the idea of building a community around shared food. There was a 50 foot-long table at a venue in Spokane, and everybody who worked in the industry was invited. They were treated to dinner, cooked by a Spokane chef Jeremy Hansen, with donated food and wine. The hope was to let those working in restaurants know that other people within the industry cared about them. He also had some index cards on hand and asked if anyone knew someone else having a rough time, to write down their email addresses and names, which were the first referrals.

The goal of Big Table is to care for every individual that gets referred to us to the best of our ability, whatever their situation is, with no strings attached. If we can help somebody and point them in the right direction—or just let them know that they’re not invisible, and that someone cares about them—that’s our biggest hope.

Most of our referrals start with a phone call and a cup of coffee to discuss their situation. For example, my first client was Casey. He was referred to Big Table through his restaurant in San Diego. He was in a motorcycle accident, and his collarbone was bent out of place.

Casey had no health insurance. At the ER, he had to swipe his credit card to receive medical treatment. Unfortunately, he required surgery to mend his collarbone. After the surgery, then came medical bills amounting to $24,000—a crushing debt for someone with no insurance and a negative $11 in his bank account.

With his permission, I spoke to his treating physicians and to the hospital administrators. “He literally cannot pay you,” I said. Through those conversations, we were able to bring his medical debt down from $24,000 to about $4,000. He’s currently on a payment plan where he can pay off one medical bill at a time for about $30 a month, which is what he can afford.

He and I are still friends. He texts me to ask how me and my family are doing.

Another client named Sylvia informed me that her husband had fallen ill. He was in the hospital with COVID and placed on a ventilator. After battling the disease for 63 days, he passed away in June 2020, leaving behind six children and a widow. Aside from providing rent relief and gift cards for groceries, we raised $2,500 for the family to spend however they saw fit.

There’s a real relationship with our clients—it’s not just a single interaction or transaction. We’re going to advocate for you. We’re going to be around you. We’re going to be with you through the dark moments, and there’s no judgment.

When we started in San Diego, in 2019, we were happy to help 67 individuals. In 2020 the number increased dramatically, with 700 people receiving assistance by the end of December. We’re just scratching the surface right now—many people are out of work and struggling with rent, groceries, and basic necessities. This past year, we focused on preventing people from falling off the edge through rent assistance and providing grocery gift cards among other things to those in need.

There were 194,000 restaurant and hotel workers in San Diego prior to the pandemic. The number of people employed in this sector is below half of that now, and it will go lower. Unfortunately the number of businesses that closed due to the pandemic is just staggering. At Big Table, we’re in the process of hiring more staff in San Diego and fundraising to help more people.

The government can only do so much. But witnessing people rally around Big Table to support this industry has been phenomenal. The San Diego Foundation just donated $250,000—the largest grant in Big Table’s history. Yet we have many individual donors that give anywhere from $5 to $2,000 a month. Without their financial support, we would not be able to do the work we do.

Our goal is to be in 10 cities within the next 10 years, so that Big Table is not just limited to cities that start with the letter “S.” Next year, we’ll launch in Nashville, and we’re fielding inquiries from Dallas, Phoenix, and Chicago. It’s not a matter of if we expand, but when.