Santa Rosa restaurant owners give employees raffle money for getting vaccinated

Some Santa Rosa restaurant workers were rewarded Wednesday for getting vaccinated by receiving $1,000 each.

For almost an hour, Mark and Terri Stark drew names from a drum, and announced winners among their restaurant properties.

A crowd of a few hundred employees watched and cheered at an outdoor picnic.

To be entered in the drawing, they only needed to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

"To work in a company that values vaccination is a pretty good feeling," said A.J. Schumaker, one of the $1,000 winners who is head chef at Willi's Wine Bar.  "The money is just icing on the cake at the end of the day."

Schumaker and other restaurant managers were vaccinated well before the launch of the contest.

So was his daughter Zia, who is a food-runner at Willi's, and won a thousand dollar Visa gift card too.

"Some people who I talked to were really hesitant about the shot," said Zia Gonzalez, "but as soon as the lottery came up, I think it was the last little reassurance just to do it."

Stark Reality Restaurants have almost 500 employees across 7 restaurants.

When the competition launched a month ago, 85 percent of employees were vaccinated, but the owners were aiming for 100 percent.

"The only thing we have control over is trying to get our work environments as safe as possible," said Terri Stark.

"And this got another 20 people over the line, we're now at 90 percent vaccinated so I feel okay about that."

Three recipients were selected from each eatery, a $21,000 outlay.

All restaurants also closed for the day so everyone could attend the event.

With food trucks and a live band, it was the first company party in a long time, and a chance to socialize safely.

"I've worked for them for 13 years," said Meghan Heron a server at Stark's Steak and Seafood, dancing along the stage as she accepted her windfall.

"We have all wanted to work all this time but it can be stressful and uncomfortable because when people take off their masks we don't know if they are vaccinated."

The Starks say they are not finished with their vaccination campaign.

"Momentum from today is still going to have some residual effect, some carryover as we go for 100 percent,' said Mark Stark.

"Next we will have conversations with staff one-on-one to figure out why they're not getting vaccinated and explain why it's so important to us," said Terri Stark.

The couple doesn't want to lose valued staff over the issue, just like they're reluctant to require customers be vaccinated.  

"That's a really tough, really big responsibility to put on our staff to police that," said Mark Stark, "and it's hard enough just doing what they already do."  

The staff party cost the company about $20,000, plus the day's lost restaurant revenue.

But as the employees posed for a sprawling group photo, the couple said the expenditure was well worth it.

"Totally worth it, just to have everybody here for this and relaxing, totally worth it," smiled Mark Stark.