Instagram feeds filled with memes, food and fashion provide respite from news of the coronavirus pandemic, but the social media platform is also providing opportunities to help support small businesses like the hard-hit restaurant industry.
For creative executive Dylan Hattem -- founder of DS Projects the company behind @buythistshirt -- the straightforward message is in the Instagram handle, paired with a brand rooted in authenticity and purpose.
"Help the people who power the restaurants and bars you love," is the account's Instagram bio.
Hattem told ABC News that the negative ripple effects of the COVID-19 outbreak was "an opportunity to think outside the box and see how we can make an impact for people around us."
Hattem and strategy lead Cassandra Aaron, along with support from from Chef Samah Dada and Advisor Celine Yousefzadeh, quickly came up with "This T-Shirt" -- a relief initiative to make and sell custom merchandise marketed on Instagram to raise funds that directly support hand-selected small businesses and larger relief funds.
"We saw the restaurant industry was taking a major hit -- so we wanted to come up with a campaign that would bring them some money, keep them in the news and keep the conversation going. That's how we came up with the initial collection 'bought this t-shirt and stayed the f--- home.'"
He continued, "our team had to leverage our expertise in helping brands tell stories and apply it to the charitable space -- inspiring action in line with the CDC’s recommendations."
The initial goal was to raise $20,000, "then fast forward and to date we're going to be cruising to $200,000."
100% of the proceeds from This T-Shirt's current collection are going to a fund established by two New York City-based charities, "ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants) and Robin Hood Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which provides grants for individuals who are out of work," Hattem said.
Industry leader and restaurant owner Camilla Marcus led the charge of coordinated assistance and sees Instagram as a critical tool to make an impact for independent businesses
"For ROAR, Instagram has absolutely helped us expand our reach and critical awareness both within our community as well as to the public at large," she told ABC News. "Case in point, our New York City restaurant worker relief fund that we launched in partnership with Robin Hood has raised over $850,000 in just a few short weeks, enabling us to provide critical cash assistance to our people who are facing such hardship as a result of the pandemic."
The white cotton long sleeve t-shirt says, "we stand with the baristas, servers, bar backs, dishwashers, managers and porters" on the top left front side. On the back, it reads, "I f---ing love New York" in bold type with an alphabetized list of over 200 local New York restaurants.
"For consumers, Instagram has given them the opportunity to show that they supported through user-generated content. We created an environment where it became 'cool' to share that you purchased, supported small businesses and were happy to wear clothes that say 'I F---ing Love' or 'Stayed the F--- Home' -- and it was Instagram’s visually led social platform that made it happen," Aaron explained.
A flood of the restaurants on the list and its employees posted the shirt that costs $40 on Instagram which has since garnered thousands of views and likes.
"It's just really special to see everything that's happening right now," Hattem said of the push to give back using these platforms. "It's been one of the most exhilarating moments in my entire life to be able to give back to everyone," he added.
West-bourne, Marcus' LA-inspired vegetarian cafe with a charitable mission and focus on sustainability, was one of the restaurants featured on the shirt seen all over Instagram.
"We are relying heavily on the platform to inspire involvement from every person that cares about restaurants and sees the value of what we contribute to the cultural fabric and economic mobility of our cities, states, and the country," Marcus said.
"Instagram means more than ever for our advocacy efforts and social movement given that we cannot gather due to the pandemic," she said. "When we would normally activate in person, we now have to be creative in using digital platforms to make our presence felt in order to spark real change and help that our industry needs desperately."
Marcus is also a founding member of the lobbying group Independent Restaurant Coalition and has used her various platforms to advocate for small businesses at the federal level.
With people relegated to their homes left inside to engage in a virtual world, while longing to be back at their favorite local restaurant, Hattem said, "the next best way of keeping in touch is via social media, specifically Instagram."
"In the past, this bond has been demonstrated through the love shown in the form of likes and comments. Now, an even deeper level of connection can be shown by using Instagram to provide financial support, in this case, by purchasing merchandise," he said.
"The platform allowed us to successfully elevate the offering of our products so that customers knew that they weren't just purchasing trendy apparel, they were buying into a socially conscious way of dealing with the COVID-19 safety measures," Aaron explained. "Essentially, the initiative turned everyday customers into merch-wearing fans who stand for a powerful message -- wear your support on your sleeve and be a part of something bigger than yourself."