Service! was founded in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown to help service and hospitality industry workers.
On the day Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered restaurants to close in-house dining services as part of COVID-19 precautions, a slew of servers, kitchen staff, hostesses, bartenders and other service workers suddenly found themselves out of a job. From the quiet of their once bustling dining rooms, restaurant veterans Matthew Heaggans, then of Ambrose & Eve, and his business partner Letha Pugh of Bake Me Happy started bouncing ideas around with Sangeeta Lakhani, then co-owner of The Table. Their initial urge to find ways to help morphed into the inspiration for a new nonprofit venture called Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers.
The group sprang into action, bringing a get-it-done level of energy to the process of launching a new organization. To avoid the bureaucratic paperwork required to form a 501©3 tax-exempt organization, Service! engaged with local group Independents’ Day, Inc., to serve as a fiscal sponsor and get everything up and running. ECDI provided space at the Food Fort commissary kitchen for preparation of the boxed meals. Within weeks, the Service! team was serving its first boxed meals.
The group’s inaugural initiative was a free boxed meal program designed to feed unemployed workers in the service industry and their families. “We needed to do something to help our people,” Lakhani said. “We needed to help the people who got us to where we’re at.”
The boxed meals program quickly took off, with workers making it part of their weekly routine or even stopping by more frequently—often, they came not only for the meals, but also for a little human interaction.
The Columbus community rose to the occasion, as well, flooding the program with donations through PayPal, T-shirt purchases, and the Columbus Foundation’s annual Big Give event. Corporate donors rallied to provide financial support for the fledgling organization, as well.
By the time the free meal program ran its course, as restaurants began to open back to full capacity, the Service! team served over 10,000 boxed meals. From there, Service! pivoted to providing direct micro-grants to service industry workers facing difficulty with paying for healthcare, housing, utilities, education, and other costs.
As Service! continues to evolve, the organization solicits feedback from the service-industry community as to current needs, struggles, and setbacks. From the very first stages, Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers has remained dedicated to fighting for and empowering service-industry workers.
Service! supports restaurant businesses that operate ethically, creating an equitable workplace with living wages and opportunities to advance so that businesses and workers can thrive together.
We stand for:
Service! has distributed over $60,000 in direct grants to hospitality workers to address short-term hardships for those who are experiencing a lack of resources to pay for essential expenses. To date, Service! has served more than 10,000 meals to unemployed service-industry professionals and their families.
To advocate for service-industry workers, working to eliminate financial insecurity, strengthen the workforce, and improve opportunities for advancement in the restaurant industry, with a goal of building a sustainable restaurant community in Central Ohio.
Poverty is a human rights issue with fatal outcomes. More than 2.5 million workers in the labor force in 2018 were classified as “working poor,” and service-industry workers accounted for 40% of all “working poor” people. Too many folks in the restaurant industry struggle to make ends meet.
COVID-related shutdowns and closures provided a unique opportunity for restaurant owners to examine the shortcomings of the industry and the resulting conditions for its employees. As restaurants reopened, business owners encountered new challenges including retraining staff, limited capacity, and high employee turnover.
Shortcomings that have existed in the industry long before today still pose challenges, too. For example, racial segregation remains prevalent in the service industry, contributing to income disparities between white and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) workers. Casual dining restaurants tend to pay lower wages and employ more BIPOC workers; fine dining restaurants tend to pay better wages and employ more white workers.
Furthermore, BIPOC people work more back-of-house positions and a majority of white people often work in the front, with the opportunity to earn higher income from tips. Relying on tips subjects workers to mistreatment from customers, and the service industry sees higher sexual harassment rates than any other industry. It’s no coincidence that 68% of tipped workers are women, which means gender also contributes to income disparities within the restaurant industry.
Just like the businesses that employ them, employees face numerous obstacles in the service industry in 2021. For instance, a quarter of all service-industry workers receive no employee benefits, such as healthcare or paid time off. This leaves restaurant employees at high risk of falling into poverty in the event of illness or last-minute emergencies. Additionally, rates of alcohol and drug abuse are higher in the service industry than in any other sector, and workers have less access to resources for recovery.
The cycle of poverty that restaurant industry folks face must be broken. As service-industry workers struggle to make ends meet, businesses seek dedicated, informed employees. Service! aims to bridge the gap between the two. We exist to serve all Central Ohio restaurant employees, owners, and establishments, with an emphasis on BIPOC, immigrant, women, and LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs and communities.
Alumni Board Member
Sangeeta Lakhani grew up in Mumbai, India where she was surrounded by a vibrant array of spices and diverse foods. Being raised in a family of avid travelers instilled in Sangeeta the importance of experiencing many different cuisines across the globe. After moving to the U.S. at the age of 17, Sangeeta studied at The Columbus College of Art and Design, followed by The Columbus State Culinary School. She has been in the restaurant business for over 25 years. Sangeeta was instrumental in the expansion of a popular campus restaurant, Hounddog’s Pizza and the bar adjacent to it, Ravari Room, before co-founding Bodega in 2005. Bodega won several awards over the years from publications such as The Alive, The Other Paper, 614 Magazine, Columbus Monthly, etc. before Sangeeta successfully sold the brand in early 2015. In 2014 she co-founded and created the menu for The Table, a prominent farm to table restaurant in the Short North District of Columbus, Ohio. In March of 2020, Sangeeta leveraged her network to pivot her existing restaurant into Service! A relief effort for hospitality workers. She has since then, put out over 11,000 free meals and writes weekly grants for service industry workers financially effected by the ongoing pandemic. In her role as Executive Director, Sangeeta plans to keep growing Service! to provide resources and training opportunities for service industry workers. Sangeeta plans to keep working within the industry by sharing her knowledge and concept ideas.
In addition to co-founding Service!, Matt also co-owns Preston’s: A Burger Joint. Trained in DC, his Columbus resume includes Ambrose & Eve, The Rossi and the late, great Swoop! Food Truck. His involvement with Service! stems from a lifelong call to serve.
Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Letha graduated from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelors’ Degree in Nursing and has lived in Columbus, Ohio since 2001. Letha began down the path of entrepreneurship with a consulting business in 2003, a home health care agency in 2008 and her latest ventures are in the food industry. She co-founded Bake Me Happy, a wholesale/retail, gluten free bakery located in Merion Village, with a second location in Dublin with her wife, Wendy, of 15 years, and their 10-year-old daughter. Letha is also a founding member of Muse Hospitality, a newly formed restaurant group whose current project includes Preston’s Burger, located in the Historic North Market and Honeys Fried Chicken, opening in Groveport, Ohio next year. She is co-founder of two non-profits: Service! A relief effort for hospitality workers displaced during the COVID 19 pandemic and Black, Out and Proud, an organization that advocates, inspires, and educates the Columbus Black LGBTQ+ community. Letha is also a Commissioner for the City of Columbus Department of Parks and Recreation, Secretary of Board for The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio and an Ambassador for the Goldman Sachs 10 Billion Dollars for 1 Million Black Women Initiative and a member of the Goldman Sachs 10k Small Voices Advocacy Group.
Shelley first started making connections in the restaurant industry as editor of Crave magazine, covering the Columbus restaurant industry. From there, she launched Umami Consulting, a marketing and public relations company that works with independent restaurants and food brands to help tell their stories more effectively. She has served as executive director of Dine Originals Columbus, a nonprofit organization supporting the city’s independent restaurant scene, and in addition to serving as board secretary for Service! also serves on the board for Independents’ Day, Inc.
Georgia is a front-of-house nerd with a passion for guest services and learning about food. Originally from Yellow Springs, Ohio, she earned her bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in Latin American studies from Ohio University. Since graduating, she’s always worked in the hospitality industry in some way or another, and has had experience working as a corporate administrator and manager for Corso Ventures, and as a quality assurance manager and general manager for A&R Creative Group. Along with her role as project coordinator for Service!, you’ll currently find her working with Preston’s: A Burger Joint
Columbus Craft Cocktail Tour presented Service! with its Humanitarian Award, for dedicating time and talent to support hospitality workers during the pandemic and beyond, at the Columbus Cocktail Classic on Sept. 5, 2021.
Short North Alliance named Service! as a Community Partner Honoree at the Short North Gala on Aug. 18, 2021.
Columbus Urban League presented Service! with the Empowerment Day Award to recognize Service! for standing up for hospitality workers devastated by layoffs during the height of COVID 19 on November 19, 2020.
Your support and contributions will enable us to meet our goals to provide critical grants to service-industry workers in Central Ohio. Your generous donation will fund our mission.
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