211021ind tillys

The owners of Tilly’s Cheesesteaks in South Kingstown recently started a GoFundMe campaign to pay sfaff and keep the business afloat after closing temporarily due to financial problems caused by the pandemic.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In just a few days of online fundraising, Tilly’s Cheesesteaks in West Kingston managed to receive almost double its goal in donations designed to help the local eatery stay afloat.    

An outpouring of community and customer support through a GoFundMe page netted $15,602 for the Kingstown Road restaurant before owners Jonathan and Kristen Beres stopped taking donations Sunday.

“We surpassed our first goal only a few hours after going live with it,” Kristen Beres said. “We’re sitting here really feeling the love and so, so, so grateful for our community.”

Tilly’s initially set a goal of $8,000 to help continue to pay staff while the restaurant is temporarily closed.

In addition to giving staff a small bonus as a form of thanks, the owners plan to use the remaining funds to help cover costs of their building’s lease, and to pay vendors and utility bills.

Like many restaurants, Tilly’s has struggled since the onset of the COVID pandemic, and the owners have had to contend not only with mandated closures, but also the rising cost of goods and a lack of available workers.

Fans of the cheesesteak spot about a mile west of the University of Rhode Island on Route 138 urged the couple to start an online donation drive, which they launched on Thursday. Donations came pouring in and within hours, the goal was upped to $10,000.

“The goal for our staff is now reached, and Tilly’s as a business still needs a whole lot of help if we’re going to make it through this,” Beres said.

COVID has made running the restaurant harder than ever.

“We’ve been clinging on for dear life and riding the worst roller coaster of our lives. Every single time we think we’ll be able to breathe for even a little bit, another tidal wave comes,” Jonathan Beres said.

Any time the restaurant’s doors are closed, there’s no cash flow, such as if an employee tests positive for COVID and operations have to stop for a week or two. That happened a few times, and it set the business back.

The couple compared it to trying to constantly climb a mountain an then getting hit by a mudslide.

“Just when we think we’ve made some progress up the mountain towards safety and sustainability, we slide way back down. Then to add to getting knocked down, there’s a mudslide on a nearly monthly basis and we get completely buried and have to feverishly dig our way out to attempt to start climbing all over again,” he said.

Jonathan and Kristen Beres opened Tilly’s in 2016, and also operate a Providence kitchen that does pickup and takeout. The husband and wife team pride themselves on being the first and, they said, only cheesesteak spot in Rhode Island.

The food on their menu is mostly sourced from local farms and businesses, they said, and items like the Tilly’s signature queso are made from scratch in-house.

In launching the fundraiser, the couple explained why times are so tough. It’s a mixture of closures forced last year because of COVID, plus the more recent price hikes: paper goods up 40 percent, food up 35 percent, payroll up 30 percent.

“We lost $140,000 in 2020 alone due to COVID lockdowns and haven’t been able to catch up even with raising prices across the board by 8 percent and that’s rolling into the increase of the cost of goods, food, paper and labor,” Jonathan said. “It’s been a never-ending fight that we haven’t been able to win.”

Tilly’s South Kingstown flagship location has more than 10,000 followers on its Facebook page, and it’s a good bet many of them came through for the business.

One anonymous donor gave $5,000, while a second, also unnamed, gave $1,000. Many other smaller sums – $50 here, $20 there – quickly added up.

“We were completely blown away with all the offers to help,” Jonathan said. “We absolutely love being a part of our community and want to stick around for as long as we can.”

The couple also said they are working on a “return on investment” plan for the community, and would announce more at a later date.

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