PATERSON and HALEDON, NJ - Not too different from the city they call home, Paterson’s Damen and Lizzie VanGinneken are determined to make 2021 the year that embodies the spirit of the name of their Haledon bar.
On December 29, 2020, Underdog Bar and Grill in Haledon was selected as a recipient of the Barstool Fund. The grant was created by David Portnoy, the founder of the sports and pop culture blog Barstool Sports. Portnoy is attempting to help restaurants and small businesses that are struggling due to COVID-19 regulations to stay afloat.
In order to qualify for the Barstool Fund, the business must still be paying its employees. Underdog notably gave each of their employees a raise, tripling their salaries since they were no longer receiving tips from in-person services. Once Underdog was selected for the grant, the Barstool Fund promised to cover their rent and payroll costs for the month of January. If the selected establishment is still suffering after the first month, the grant will continue to provide the needed costs until the pandemic is over.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) VanGinneken, manager of Underdog and wife of Damen VanGinneken, owner of the bar for over 15 years, explained that up until the pandemic, the establishment “was doing really really well.” As an active organization in the community, Underdog had sponsored local softball teams, anti-bullying initiatives, and suicide awareness programs. Once COVID-19 lockdown protocols went into effect, not only was the bar paralyzed in its social action, but it also struggled to continue paying its employees and did not provide an income to the VanGinneken’s for nine months.
“We’re a sports bar, it’s a Sunday night, the Packers are playing, and there’s nobody here,” says Damen in Underdog’s nomination video submission for the Barstool Fund.
Jon Buglione and Jeffrey Fischer, employees at Underdog and friends of the VanGinneken’s, noticed the bar was struggling and took it upon themselves to nominate the bar for the grant. Buglione and Fischer filmed the nomination video and wrote to Portnoy explaining the situation Underdog was in.
“We needed a miracle,” says Lizzie.
In the video, Damen explained that on the same day that Underdog was shut down, Lizzie was diagnosed with stage four appendix cancer, which is rare and expensive to treat. The VanGinneken’s traveled to Washington, D.C. for Lizzie to receive a 13-hour surgery, who has also received six rounds of chemotherapy since her diagnosis. In order to keep the bar alive and pay Lizzie’s medical bills, the VanGinneken’s used their savings, which was supposed to be spent on a wedding ceremony once COVID-19 was over.
“We started to feel like we were drowning and there’s no lifeboat, the medical bills are piling up and the bar is not doing well,” says Lizzie. “Without the bar staying afloat, I would die. I can’t pay for my chemotherapy.
The VanGinnekin’s found out that Underdog was selected to receive the Barstool Fund in a FaceTime call with Portnoy that was posted on Facebook. Lizzie noted that the attention this post has brought Underdog has almost been more important than anything else. The bar has experienced increased take-out orders, gift card purchases, and various customers calling in asking the bar to charge them one cent, so they can leave a huge tip. Lizzie explained that tons of support came from Patersonians, as Lizzie and Damen are both natives of the city.
“Paterson is amazing that way – for as much stigma as we have, it is a city of immense hope and community,” she says.
Lizzie says that this situation has given her tremendous hope in a time when it seems like all hope is lost. Despite her diagnosis and the condition of the bar, the efforts of individual people have given her and her family a chance to keep fighting.
“You always have to root for the underdog,” she says.
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