When Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the dine-in ban in Illinois, Mony Bunni, Laura Kelton, and Kristina Magro were still working shifts around the city. Bunni was at Tenzing Wine and Spirits, Kelton at Mundano, and Magro at Lone Wolf.

The writing on the wall was clear: Just about everyone they knew would soon be out of work, and they had to do something about it — fast.

“The first conversations we had about setting up a COVID-19 relief fund, I was sitting at the bar I was beverage director for,” Kelton says. “We had to create a support system for the most vulnerable in our industry.”

And so Comp Tab was born. Launched in March in collaboration with the food education nonprofit Pilot Light, the crowdfunding initiative provides direct financial support to hospitality workers based on self-reported need.

The latter point — self-reported need — is what makes Comp Tab unique. While various mutual aid funds provide money to restaurant leadership, Comp Tab's model allows for donations to ancillary workers, like overnight cleaning crews, who may fall through the cracks. (For instance, Chicago Hospitality United, another fund for hospitality workers in the city, collects donations for specific bars and restaurants, who then split the money evenly between workers.)

“There are a lot of funds out there, and there are a lot of funds centered around bartenders, cocktail servers, and barbacks. That’s great, and those people definitely need to be taken care of, but there are so many more people that make up hospitality,” Bunni says.

Comp Tab isn’t Bunni, Kelton, and Magro’s first collaboration. They first met working in various bars around Chicago, and in 2018 launched Small Talk Hospitality, organizing charity events and fundraisers with the goal of opening their own bar someday. Then, last fall, they started Support Staff, a nonprofit promoting mental wellness in the hospitality industry.

They initially planned to set up a fund connecting uninsured and underinsured hospitality workers to mental health care. But, as Bunni puts it, the prospect of indefinite restaurant closures — plus a nudge from Support Staff board member Kisira Hill, the founder of food and beverage-focused creative agency Radical Xchange — “lit a fire under our asses” to broaden the fund’s purview. In addition to soliciting applications and donations for Comp Tab, the Support Staff website is now stocked with resources covering everything from childcare to bill payment assistance, plus links to other hospitality-focused relief funds.

“It was based off a sense of urgency. We thought, Is there going to be a time when the industry needs this more?” Bunni says.

To qualify for aid from Comp Tab, hospitality workers are asked to provide proof of their most recent employment. Then, they tally their average monthly income and living expenses, insurance status, number of dependents, and any other demonstrated financial need. The goal is to identify and prioritize those who are at highest risk, and especially who have been unable to receive government assistance.

Since Comp Tab’s launch, Kelton says they’ve fielded upwards of 140 applications. The first round of payments, being distributed this month, will range from $100 to $2,000.

“You don’t want to play God and have to figure out who needs something more than someone else, so we’ve allowed people to rank their own risk,” Kelton says.

So far, Comp Tab has raised more than $17,000 of its $100,000 goal. Because Support Staff’s 501(c)(3) status is pending, the collaboration with Pilot Light allows all donations to be tax-exempt, and an anonymous donor has pledged to match contributions up to $35,000.

In a nod to its roots in mental health and wellness, on Giving Tuesday, Support Staff organized an Instagram campaign asking hospitality workers to share their own self-care routines in quarantine, accompanied by the hashtag #CareTab. By the end of the day, they'd raised nearly $3,000 for Comp Tab.

“You can’t talk about sustainability within the industry without sustaining the people who create it,” Kelton says. “We want to be able to bridge that gap.”

Other organizations have rallied support for the nascent fund. Tenzing Wine & Spirits, where Bunni worked before being furloughed, made a sizable donation to Comp Tab, and the Chicago Reader’s upcoming cookbook issue will donate part of its proceeds to the fund.

However, the vast majority of Comp Tab’s supporters are other hospitality workers. As donations continue to pour in, the Support Staff founders have been touched to see former colleagues and other familiar names dominate the GoFundMe. But they’d like for those outside the industry — people who have leaned on Chicago’s bars and restaurants for special occasions and milestones — to do their part, too.

“A lot of the people I know who have lost their sources of income are the ones that are still donating. It’s so sweet, but we’re kind of all in the same boat,” Bunni says. “Hospitality workers have always been there to take care of everyone else. Now we’re asking everyone else to take care of us.”