sweaty bettys toronto

Fundraiser for iconic Toronto dive bar raises almost $10K in under 24 hours

A GoFundMe for a struggling Toronto dive bar that's been around for 17 years has already raised almost $10,000 of its whopping $50,000 goal in less than a day.

The fundraiser was started by Sweaty Betty's regular Jessica Thomson in hopes of helping owner May Brand "relax knowing she doesn’t have to do this all on her own anymore." Sweaty Betty's is temporarily closed due to lockdown.

Like all bars in Toronto, Sweaty Betty's has struggled mightily and May Brand has gone into enormous debt over the course of the pandemic, thanks to costs like renos for COVID-19 safety precautions when the bar reopened in the summer and replacing a front window right before the current lockdown began.

"There has been next to no government or other help for her along the way," reads the GoFundMe page. "All funds raised will be used for rent and utilities, which haven’t been easy to pay since the bar has been closed for nearly 6 months this year. The funds raised will help the bar stay alive over the winter months."

"I invested nearly $20,000 in COVID renovations, adding a plexiglass screen across the bar, and plexiglass walls between tables on the patio. I bought heaters for the patio. I can’t tell you how much hand sanitizer costs and how much we went through," Brand told blogTO.

"We definitely struggled through the fall as more and more restrictions were put in place, like reducing our hours and then going back to outdoor seating only. We're lucky we have such an awesome patio that can be semi-heated. But there's only so much a business can take."

sweaty bettys toronto

In addition to their back patio, Sweaty Betty's opened a temporary front patio. Photo by Hector Vasquez.

If you hang out in the Ossington area you've likely hung out in the dim divey interior or out on the adorable patio at Betty's, and perhaps done more than a few two many picklebacks at the bar.

"After this last lockdown that started in December, we thought we'd be okay till it ended in January and as long as we could open we'd survive," says Brand. "But it's just not possible to stay closed and get barely any help from the government to cover costs."

Not only is Sweaty Betty's a local fixture, it's also central to the queer community in the neighbourhood.

"May has poured her blood, sweat and tears into keeping this iconic bar a safe space for everyone, especially since there are so few queer spaces in the west end of the city," reads the GoFundMe page. "May is well known and loved in both the queer community and bar industry, and she's made Sweaty's the success that it is today."

Sweaty Betty's Instagram story confirms this, with many other supporters of the bar posting news of the GoFundMe to their personal accounts saying it's a cornerstone of the queer community and a space where they've always felt safe.

"I really want this to be a safe queer and trans friendly place, there's nowhere left and places like this saved my life when I came out when I was young," says Brand.

sweaty bettys toronto

The famous picklebacks that Sweaty Betty's is known for. Photo by Hector Vasquez.

Thomson, a hair stylist at Parlour across the street from Sweaty Betty's, started the fundraiser because she's been going to the bar for seven years and has become close with Brand, even something of a chosen family member. She reached out to Brand's partner to ask about starting the GoFundMe, and eventually Brand agreed.

"My coworkers and I would often have a drink or two after a long day. Since being so close and visiting often I began my friendship with May," Thomson told blogTO.

"I know she was struggling big time and needed help but wasn't going to ever ask for it. I knew this was what needed to happen, the donations, the sharing and the public knowledge that this institution would close forever."

"I realized I'm at a point with the bar that I'm just not going to survive past February if we can't open the bar, and just doing a few takeaways or curbside merch sales doesn’t help enough to save us. I've played by the rules, I've applied to every rent relief option, received every loan and more loans, the wage subsidy, all of it," says Brand.

"It's not just rent, and I think people underestimate the costs and bills that continue whether we're open or not. We did great this summer but that only helped us catch up from the first lockdown. I brought every single staff member back in June as soon as we could reopen, and I took on two new staff members from the Beaver Cafe when I heard they were closing permanently."

Though the situation for Betty's is dire, more people are donating to the fundraiser to help the bar with every passing hour.

"It has been shared quite a bit and the responses are overwhelming so far," says Thomson. "We are so grateful to have a community based on social media to help."

"This is all a bit much for me emotionally, I can't believe so many people are helping," says Brand.

"I know things are so tight right now for so many people, I'm just in awe of everyone's generosity and thankful for the messages people have been sending me of how much they love Sweaty Betty's and memories of first dates or meeting friends there, it just means so much to me and makes all of this struggle and work worth it."

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez

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