One small miracle in the healthcare crisis

By Sophie Silverstone

In the service industry, even a broken arm might mean you can’t go to work. For injured or ill baristas, bartenders, servers, hosts and cooks this may mean weeks, even months of unpaid time. Being unemployed adds a considerable amount of stress to your life, especially when you’re already trying to heal. That’s not considering the bills you’re looking at after a short visit to the hospital, even if you’re insured.

Matt Pfohl, who was working at the time for Copper Onion, suffered a stroke in 2014. He was only 29 years old and suddenly had $39,000 in medical debt. He had $11,000 of that forgiven through Intermountain Healthcare’s medical forgiveness program. “Objectively $11,000 isn’t a lot of money, but for me at the time, it felt like a miracle,” says Matt. Since then, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he needed to do something to help others in a situation similiar to his own.

“Healthcare is a crisis across industries, not just the service industry,” says Matt, the founder of the new nonprofit, One Small Miracle, with the mission to support members of the service industry who face life-altering medical events while uninsured or underinsured.

Matt has been working on ways to support service industry workers, whether it be gift certificates to local supermarkets, a community to turn to for an ear to listen or a helping hand in a fundraiser, and even work as a liaison with property management companies to help pay their rent if necessary. With the guidance of a close friend, Emily Capito, LCSW, and founder of Rockstar Comebacks, an online and in-person community cultivating resilience, Matt launched the nonprofit One Small Miracle on April 15.

Only a few weeks later, three members in the SLC service industry experienced various health crises that threw the organization into high gear. The community raised $15,000 in eight weeks for One Small Miracle’s first three beneficiaries. One of the three, Alejandro Olivares, the bar manager of Under Current, and president of the Utah chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG Utah) was diagnosed with lung cancer.

Alejandro Olivares

The shock of Alejandro’s news rippled through the service industry in Salt Lake quickly, and many industry friends responded with ways to help Alejandro find a way to finance his upcoming battle. Although he’s insured, he’s unable to work during his current treatment. Through a One Small Miracle fund, local restaurants, bars, and their patrons will be helping Alejandro fight cancer. All summer, Cafe Niche will donate a dollar to Alejandro’s fund for every Niche breakfast, mushroom scramble, deviled eggs, Brussels sprouts, bloody Mary, mimosa and Bellini sold. For the month of June, a portion of proceeds from the ‘Olivares’ cocktail (a Mezcal version of a Negroni cocktail) served at Copper Common, Under Current, Water Witch, Quarters, Tinwell, Nomad Eatery, AC Hotel and Post Office Place, were put towards Alejandro’s fund with One Small Miracle. And on Sunday, August 11, the organization’s biggest event yet, “One Big Miracle of Alejandro” will be at Bar X from 5-11pm.

But funding treatment is only one way that Matt wants to fix the service industry’s healthcare crisis. Another is through better personal care. Matt admits that in his twenties, he was one of the many people the service industry who did not lead a healthy lifestyle. Now he rarely drinks. Although he still works late hours at the bar in Salt Lake City’s Westside Granary district, Water Witch, of which he is a part owner, he is one of many of the leaders in the service industry who encourages a culture shift—away from binge drinking and more towards the European style of drinking casually and in moderation. This is a big issue for Matt.

Alejandro, too, has been thinking about this for a long time as well. On a personal level, Alejandro quit smoking and drinking earlier this year. The news of Alejandro’s’ diagnosis has also inspired coworkers at Under Current to quit smoking. “It would be a dishonor to Ale if I didn’t,” says the bar’s general manager, Mike Fayad.

It’s starting small. Matt prides himself on the fact that none of the staff at Water Witch smoke cigarettes, and co-owner Scott Gardner started a run club for the employees, where they take weekly runs together. Nonetheless, these small changes from the norm can add up to big benefits for the health of their community overall.

With the rise of popularity in craft cocktails and the more locally crafted fine dining experiences, the service industry is becoming a respected and notable career path for more and more young people. The issue of care for the wellbeing and longevity of those in this young workforce is consistently coming to the table. As such, people like Matt and Alejandro and organizations like One Small Miracle, are pulling up a seat to the table as well.

This article was originally published on July 31, 2019.