Back in 2013, I left the only home I ever knew in West Virginia to pursue an acting career in New York City. During my first “side hustle” search, I came across a tweet from Joe Germanotta, who I knew only then as Lady Gaga’s dad. He was seeking “Born Brave Bussers” to work at Joanne Trattoria, his new Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. I quickly emailed in an application — confidence and enthusiasm making up for my lack of formal restaurant experience — assuming thousands of other Little Monsters would also apply.
Nearly a month later with still no job and no call from the restaurant, I began to give up hope. Then out of the blue, an email from an address I didn’t recognize appeared in my inbox. Ana, the bar manager at Joanne, found herself desperately seeking a bar back as the restaurant gained popularity and asked if I could come in for an interview that afternoon. I dropped everything, showed up to the restaurant where I met Joe (known also lovingly as Mr. G) and Ana who hired me on the spot.
A couple of weeks into working at Joanne, I booked an acting job outside the city. I knew how quick the turnaround was for the restaurant industry, and it was unlikely if you left the city you’d be able to come back to your same day job. I was terrified to tell Mr. G, but Ana assured me he’d understand. The second I walked into the restaurant that evening and he exclaimed, “I hear you’re leaving me!” but before I could offer any explanation he continued, “You’ve gotta go after your passion, both my daughters are doing the same thing. We’ll always have a place for you when you come back.”
And he kept that promise time and time again. Throughout the years, Joanne Trattoria became a home for me, a safe haven to come back to between acting jobs. They would somehow always find a place for me. Many of us had been there since the beginning, starting as “Born Brave Bussers” moving on up to become servers, bartenders, even managers. Our bond became so much more than coworkers. We were the “Joanne fam” — sharing laughter and tears throughout the years, celebrating holidays and birthdays together, mourning the loss of beloved regulars, and this past summer, Mr. G even offered to close the restaurant for a night to hold the wedding of fellow Born Brave Busser Elise.
The kindness I was consistently met with at Joanne was overwhelming, not only from the Germanotta family and my fellow staff members, but also from our customers. Our regulars were part of the family as well. I would know Beverly’s usual order (a white pizza with caramelized onions and spinach) as well as I knew about her important business trip to Cleveland coming up. Marianne would pour Dallas his usual drink, and he’d offer advice on the latest version of the play she was writing. Our regulars would consistently show up at our theatre performances or events in the city, give us feedback on our poems or paintings, and they would always be there for us in our time of need.
Working behind the bar at Joanne even led me to my current position with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. In the early years, the team would meet at the restaurant led by her mother, Co-Founder Cynthia Germanotta (a fellow West Virginian I also came to know and love). I admired from afar, serving them meatballs while they brainstormed ways to inspire and empower young people to build a kinder and braver world. When one day a position opened up, I jumped and never looked back. Maya and Cynthia offered me that job at the exact same place Mr. G offered me the job at Joanne several years before — at the corner of the bar in the restaurant.
A few weeks ago, the staff at Joanne stacked the chairs up in the dining room for the night as they always did. The porters mopped the floors, and the bartender shut off the lights and locked the doors. When the city mandated that all restaurants close, many said ‘goodbye-for-now’ to the first and only jobs they’d ever known. From Ana, the bar manager who has been tending bar in that spot for over two decades to Juan the kitchen manager who I helped make the fresh pasta in the kitchen when I first started at Joanne, it broke my heart to see my family head home to uncertain futures.
Most hospitality workers make their living on the gratuity for the service they provide. So, this weekend I thought I could give back to my Joanne fam by sending them virtual “tips”! Restaurants across the nation have created these virtual “tip jars” containing methods by which you can send a little love to an individual employee via mobile payment services like Venmo or CashApp.
So, if someone in the restaurant industry has ever made you smile, if you’ve ever felt like family at your favorite local restaurant, or even if you just love the meatballs at Joanne, please consider giving in any way you can.
Our interns at Team Born This Way Foundation have put together this master list of a few communities with virtual tip jars across the country and here’s another database containing service workers you can virtually tip.
Can’t find your city or restaurant? Try a web search containing the name of your city and ‘Virtual Tip Jar’ – chances are one has likely been started and any little bit you donate can make a huge difference!