California restaurant owners offer cash prizes to encourage employee vaccinations

A restaurant group in the North Bay has launched a contest to get more employees vaccinated, with more than $20,000 up for grabs.

"I think the lottery is a fun way to reward people for doing the right thing," said Terri Stark, who founded Stark Reality Restaurants with her husband, Mark. "And if you want to enter, you're going to be showing your proof of vaccination."

The Starks opened their first Sonoma County eatery, WIlli's Wine Bar, in 2002.

They now have seven restaurants in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, and employ 486 people.

About 85% are vaccinated against COVID-19, including all management. But that leaves about 70 individuals who are not.

"What we usually find is that somebody they trust has told them to not get the vaccine," said Stark, "and that's hard to battle."

Aiming for 100 percent staff vaccination, Stark was inspired by the state lotteries that awarded more than $100 million to vaccinated Californians.  

"I've never done this before, never thought I would have to do anything like this," said Stark, who plans to pick names from an ice bucket or serving bowl on September 1.

Three winners from each restaurant will receive a $1,000 Visa gift card.

The $21,000 outlay is worth it, Stark says, in light of variants driving new surges. 

"We can't go back, our businesses won't survive another shutdown."

In the employee break rooms, contest details are posted along with information about clinic locations and hours.

"We will drive them to their appointments, make their appointments, anything it takes to get them there," said Stark.

The giveaway seems to have triggered a shift among some employees who've been hesitant or procrastinating.

"I'm hearing, 'I'm going to get vaccinated now,'" said Nora Caffrey, Assistant Manager of The Bird and the Bottle, which employs about 50 people.  

"They are giving it a second thought, just sitting with it a minute, then deciding it's a good idea if it's this important to the owners and the company."

Staffer Nicole Knibb, 24, got her shot this week but admits she wasn't especially motivated until now.

"The lottery definitely made a difference because I would like to win the money," she laughed.

Over the course of the pandemic, fewer than a dozen staff across all restaurant properties have been infected, and none caught or spread the coronavirus while at work.

"This has been a fun way to get the entire staff vaccinated and involved," said The Bird and the Bottle Chef de Cuisine Nick Newcomb.

"Everyone has more incentive, and we're talking about it across the entire company so it's definitely been a great thing."  

After the drawing, the Starks haven't decided how to handle remaining hold-outs, but regular testing is a possibility.

"We are trying to avoid mandates because it's hard enough right now finding staff," said Stark.

The owners have tried to assure employees their push for vaccination is not about singling out individuals.

"Me, myself and I don't work right now, it's for public health and safety and we're just trying to do our part," said Stark.

Many employees who got vaccinated early on say while the contest is great, they have already won.   

"The prize is staying safe and keeping everyone else safe, and this is just an added bonus to that," said Caffrey.