The Plaza Tavern and Grill, a locally-owned restaurant in downtown Madison, has been serving the area since 1930. Similar to many other independent businesses, the Plaza Tavern is facing great financial challenges due to the numerous implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests.

The restaurant closed fully in March, reopened with limited capacity for indoor dining in late May and switched to only serving carry out in July. The Plaza’s lack of outdoor seating further decreased the opportunity for ample business. 

In an effort to keep the business alive, Plaza Tavern manager Ian Miller created a GoFundMe campaign Sept. 22. The campaign asks the community for financial help in the midst of months of decreased revenue, largely attributable to COVID-19 business restrictions set by the state government. 

By the end of a week, the fundraising campaign surpassed its original goal of $75,000. The fundraiser was shared over 5,000 times and more than 1,500 individuals donated to support the struggling business, according to the fundraiser’s page.

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When drafting the fundraising campaign, Miller said he ran it by at least 10 other people to try to ensure the message would be streamlined quickly to a broad, large audience.

“I would rather have 75,000 people donate a dollar, than put a financial burden on other people who are also hurting during this time,” Miller said.

Miller said he was shocked by the amount of larger donations, with several donors contributing more than $1,000. 

Other local businesses and restaurants in Madison recently started fundraising campaigns, and many also experienced strong support from the community. For example, Short Stack Eatery raised over $60,000 through their GoFundMe campaign in late August.

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Donations continue to pour in for The Plaza, strengthening the ability of the restaurant to withstand these financial hardships.

Erica DeRosa, another manager at The Plaza Tavern, said she was amazed by the success of the GoFundMe.

“It has brought tears to my eyes, more than one time, thinking about the generosity of everybody and how so many people have been touched by the Plaza,” DeRosa said.

According to the GoFundMe page, the funds from this campaign will be used primarily to cover the gap between revenue and monthly overhead costs. Any leftover donations will be used to hire more staff as indoor dining restrictions ease and business increases. 

There are hundreds of comments on the campaign’s page, with many supportive sentiments written by customers and previous employees. Many mentioned fond memories of dining at The Plaza Tavern, particularly on special occasions — such as Badger game days, family events and meeting their significant others. Furthermore, most comments praised the food, atmosphere and staff of the tavern, naming this establishment as having their favorite burger in Madison. 

Even when the Plaza could not afford to pay wages, DeRosa and Miller said they continued to work. DeRosa said she made this decision to invest in her future, as well as the Plaza’s. Miller said it was worth it to sacrifice little things in order to keep the tavern alive. Both managers said they were employed by The Plaza Tavern in the mid-1990s. 

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According to DeRosa, the donations from the fundraiser enables the staff to be paid for the first time in over three months.

DeRosa and Miller said they share a long-term goal of purchasing the Plaza from current owner Dean Hetue, who first began working at the business more than 40 years ago. As stated on the GoFundMe page, they were in the process of taking over ownership when the pandemic hindered this plan. 

“We knew we had to get The Plaza to survive through this time, for us to be able to buy it and continue its legacy,” Miller said.

As colder weather nears, new financial worries emerge for local restaurants. Many depend on the use of outdoor spaces to safely serve patrons, but the use of outdoor dining spaces will soon diminish.

A survey by the National Restaurant Association found 33% of Wisconsin restaurants are expected to close within the next six months due to COVID-19.

President and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Kristine Hillmer called the situation “urgent.”

“We are at an extinction-level event for small businesses and restaurants and it’s urgent that we use this time to figure out how these businesses can reopen safely,” Hillmer said.