FORT WORTH, Texas — Diana Del Rio couldn’t work. The 25-year-old waitress at upscale downtown eatery Reata Restaurant is also a single mom of two young children.

When the pandemic hit our shores in March, restaurants, schools, and daycares were all shut down, so she was forced into duty as a stay-at-home parent with no income. After weeks of trying, she eventually managed to enroll for unemployment benefits, but not before mounting bills created in her a crippling sense of stress and uncertainty.

What You Need To Know

  • The Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival's weeklong event was canceled this year

  • The Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation raises money for culinary arts scholarships

  • This year, the foundation's organizers decided to change their charitable goal and raise money for out-of-work restaurant workers

  • The foundation has given out more than $110,000 to about 250 people since March

“It was really tough to get to the bills that were coming due,” she said. “I remember calling my apartment complex and just questioning, like, ‘What is everybody going to do? How, how is rent going to be get paid?’ It was just a tough time and a lot of anxiety.”

Del Rio was also dealing with bigger problems than figuring out how to keep the lights on. Her youngest child, a three-year-old boy, was born with cyclic vomiting syndrome, a rare disease that causes recurrent bouts of vomiting in children. Her youngest has been hospitalized 42 times since birth – and 15 times since April. The inpatient stints usually last around a week. Because of coronavirus restrictions, only one person is allowed in a hospital room at a time. With no money for childcare, Del Rio was facing the prospect of choosing between being in the hospital room with one son or the waiting room with the other. 

Del Rio and roughly 250 other local out-of-work restaurant industry employees have received grants from the Fort Worth Food + Wine Foundation, the charitable arm of the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival. So far, the foundation has donated more than $110,000 to industry workers in need since March – spanning 85 different restaurants.

Del Rio received the maximum $500 grant, which she used to pay for a babysitter to watch her older son while she was at the hospital with her youngest.

“That $500 meant a lot,” she said. “It helps, and I'm very grateful for it."

The Festival's Pivot

Every other year in its seven-year history, proceeds raised at the week-long festival benefit culinary arts students through grants that pay for scholarships and supplies. This year, after the event was canceled because of the pandemic, the foundation decided to shift its charitable focus. The FWFWF is still raising money for scholarships, but the festival’s executive director Julie Eastman said the festival’s organizers decided to be proactive and help as many people in the industry as possible.

“It became obvious to us very quickly that we needed to do anything we could to help the restaurant community and the food and beverage community in general,” she said. “We came up with the idea of setting up this fund.”

The grants, she said, weren’t just for people who were laid off, but for those in the industry who carried the weight of other expenses and stressors beyond just paying rent and bills.

“You also had to have medical bills or you have no childcare,” she said. “You have small children in your home or the whole household was laid off – some things that took it to that level of extreme hardship.”

A restaurant manager must submit the application for the grant on behalf of the employee, to make sure the money is reaching the neediest workers. When the applications come in to Eastman, she scrubs the name of the restaurant and hands over the information to the five-woman panel that ultimately decides who receives a grant. The check goes to the restaurant, which is then responsible for doling out the proper amount to the correct people.

Eastman said she’s recently applied for a grant that will hopefully continue to fund the foundation’s restaurant employee relief fund. The 501c3 non-profit is also accepting donations.

Del Rio returned to work in July, and, although she was only working 10 hours a week, she was kicked off unemployment. Thankfully, she said, business is finally starting to pick up again. Reata allows customers to dine in waves, so the restaurant’s operators can keep guests at a safe distance from one another. Her oldest son is back at school, and her youngest at daycare.

“We're starting to get back on track,” she said. “The holidays are coming up. So it means a lot more hours, thankfully.”