Travel IndustryBooksSmarter ShoppingSports

The Coronavirus Economy: How my job as a sommelier has changed through the pandemic

April 8, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Subscribe to Fortune’s Outbreak newsletter for a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on global business.

Over the course of her career spanning more than 20 years, Belinda Chang has made a name for herself in the hospitality industry as a sought-after wine expert and sommelier.

Based in Chicago, the James Beard Award winner plans both intimate wine and food pairing dinners for private clients as well as some of the industry’s buzziest events, including the now-annual pool party at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

But with virtually all gatherings and events of any size canceled nationwide for the foreseeable future, wine and culinary professionals have to put a great deal of their careers on hold, too.

Fortune spoke with Chang for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how the outbreak of COVID-19 has affected her employment status and her plans for the future, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially.

Belinda Chang has made a name for herself in the hospitality industry as a sought-after wine expert and sommelier.
Courtesy of Modern Luxury

Fortune: What was your regular schedule like before the coronavirus outbreak?

Chang: Right before the outbreak was declared a pandemic, I was celebrating the second official year of doing business as a bootstrap woman entrepreneur and one woman show with my first business. I had chased down and locked in a portfolio of my dream global clients who were hiring me to create and execute my dream experiences with luxury food, wine, beauty, and travel elements. I was busy and traveling everywhere and working 24/7 in January and February. And I was so excited to actually be able to pay myself for the first time in more than two years since I started my business.

When did you realize that the outbreak of COVID-19 was going to upend your business?

I was in Toronto on March 6 for a work trip (drinking rosé cava with a few journalists and starting in on some boquerones—marinated white anchovies—and bacalao), and I started receiving “Do you have time for a quick call?” emails and texts from a few of my clients. I stepped outside to make a few calls. (It was raining and cold that day to make matters worse.) The first call was to cancel a global investor event in June and to request an immediate refund. And then there was a second. And a third. And a fourth. I went back into my meeting and almost threw up.

What has been your reaction to the shutdowns in New York, California, Illinois, etc., and how those would affect the bar and restaurant industry at large?

I fully support the governors and mayors who made the choice to do so and wish that more had done so earlier. The choice is life or death. It is clear that more people will live the sooner our entire country is sheltering in place. We must do everything possible to flatten the curve and keep that sucker flat. And of course, this crushes all of my friends who own and work for bars and restaurants.

I spent 25 years working in restaurants and bars every day, and we work in one of the toughest industries in just about every way. We have the some of the lowest levels of worker protections and benefits and often a less than living wage. We work the toughest hours with physically demanding work, and these small, independently owned businesses operate on some of the lowest margins. That $500 wine on my wine list cost me $450 at auction without the labor, rent, glassware, and all of the other costs for me to sell it and serve it to you.

A large percentage of the 7 million laid-off restaurant and hospitality workers live paycheck to paycheck and have families to support. This whole thing is devastating. We are going to be left with only corporate fast food and national chain restaurants to choose from for dinner out if the government doesn’t target aid and support for small, independently owned restaurants.

Belinda Chang plans both intimate wine and food pairing dinners for private clients as well as some of the industry’s buzziest events.
Courtesy of Emily Hard/Light Leak Pictures

What can consumers do to support restaurant industry workers?

It is a bewildering landscape of individual restaurant GoFundMe pages, new and old end-hunger organizations, and foundations like the James Beard Foundation asking for your dollars right now. I receive dozens of emails asking me to give to these organizations every day. Those are all worthy causes, but it will take that money some time to filter out to the end recipient. I want to direct people to support the endeavors that immediately get needed dollars to pay rent to avoid eviction, and to buy groceries to feed families directly—and into the pockets of those who need that help now.

Jackie and Dani’s Virtual Happy Hour put cash tips into the pockets of laid-off bartenders while they are shaking and stirring drinks every night on webcam. My virtual brunch is doing the same for your favorite sommeliers who now have no way to earn a living. Punch magazine is hosting bartenders every day on Instagram Live. All of this is immediate and awesome. But we have many more people to help. So many companies are hosting virtual events for their employees at the end of the day, so here is a big idea: why not bring in your favorite out-of-work bartenders, sommeliers, chefs, and others to do what they have always done for you, only virtually, and let them serve, connect, comfort, share recipes, wine-buying tips and cooking tips and demonstrations for tips?

Aside from business, how have you been coping—emotionally, mentally—from day-to-day during this tumultuous time?

After I emptied my bank account and fielded so many calls from friends who have been laid-off or furloughed and are newly unemployed, I was tempted to stay in bed for a few weeks and really shut myself into a cocoon.

But what has kept me from doing that is the voice in my head that told me to do something, anything that I could to help right away. Leverage my experience and connections for good. People have told me that I am best at creating experiences and making people feel taken care of and like they are the most important person in the room. So I created an experience designed to do that virtually and fulfill people’s need to connect and be comforted right now—and that raises money to help my friends. Producing and hosting virtual brunch right now and doing all that I can to help others is keeping me sane.

What words would you share with your colleagues in the industry who are struggling right now and fear not being able to reopen or find work over the next few weeks and months?

It is going to get tougher before it gets easier, and we shall overcome, together.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—The USPS might have to shutter by June as the stimulus package provides no funding
—Everything you need to know about the coronavirus stimulus checks
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—Political activists make sure Americans register to vote—from a distance
—During the coronavirus crisis, equal pay is more important than ever
—Coronavirus fight could prove fatal to addressing climate change
—PODCAST: Two health care CEOs on why coronavirus tests and vaccines are the ammunition needed to fight COVID-19
—VIDEO: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

Subscribe to Outbreak, a daily roundup of stories on the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on global business, delivered free to your inbox.