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As coronavirus shut the doors, Ty and Holly Burrell left a $100,000 tip for servers

Ty Burrell
Ty Burrell
Ty Burrell

SALT LAKE CITY — Ty Burrell hasn’t always been Phil Dunphy, the lovable bumbling TV dad who’s constantly embarrassing his children on “Modern Family,” the hit series on ABC that will close its 11-year run with a finale and reunion show this coming Wednesday night.

Before that he was a waiter.

“Like most struggling actors we were both servers,” says Ty, speaking of himself and his wife, Holly, the Utah native — a former Davis High Dart from Kaysville — he met in the late 1990s when they were both studying acting at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.

“I was a waiter at multiple restaurants, as was she. I think she was actually pretty good at it,” Ty says, before going off on a Phil Dunphy-esque riff about his own performance.

“I, on the other hand, was uniquely bad at waiting tables. I lacked any of the skill set other than being friendly. I was good at being friendly. But I can’t multitask. I’d immediately forget what the next step was when I arrived at the table. I have spilled whole rounds of drinks on people, and this is not an exaggeration.”

His waiting career, and Holly’s, has become a point of focus because of what the Burrells did two weeks ago when the coronavirus closed the doors on Salt Lake City’s 560 restaurants and bars, abruptly sending some 15,000 servers to the sidelines without a paycheck.

They immediately sat down and wrote out a check for what must easily qualify as the largest tip in Utah history: $100,000.

With that contribution as seed money, Salt Lake City and the Downtown Alliance joined forces with the Burrells to set up an online fund called Tip Your Server — downtownslc.org/tipyourserver — that allows anyone and everyone to join in and make contributions.

All money raised will be distributed in the form of grants to out-of-work servers to be identified by their employers.

“I have a firsthand sense of how vulnerable that population is,” says Ty. “The job is essentially a cash situation because of tips — and when that’s cut off there’s no safety net. I remember when I got laid off as a waiter and trying to apply for unemployment; it’s very difficult because the hourly wage is so low. It can be really, really tough, and this situation we find ourselves in now is really uniquely bad for servers.”

Included in this suddenly unemployed group are the 75 people who work at the now-shuttered Utah restaurants and bars the Burrells own with several other partners, including the Beer Bar restaurant and Bar X bar on 200 South in downtown Salt Lake City, as well as The Eating Establishment in Park City.

“We’re working on our strategy for figuring out how to move forward with everyone,” says Ty. “Certainly the Tip Your Server program will be part of it.”

To date, some $200,000 has already been contributed to Tip Your Server (a running total is kept on the website), with other businesses and matching contributions yet to be tallied, according to Ryan Mack, the communication and marketing director for Downtown Alliance. “People can give whatever amount they want and are able,” Mack said. “We’ve seen everything from $1 to $100,000.”

On March 31, the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation pledged a $50,000 matching grant in support of Tip Your Server, meaning that every donation up to $50,000 received from the public during the month of April will be doubled.

Ty and Holly are watching all this from afar, sheltering in place in their Los Angeles home. With the ending of “Modern Family” this year, their intention was to move full time with their two daughters to Salt Lake City, where they’ve had a home since 2008.

“It was always our plan to move back when the show was over,” said Ty. “But right now everything’s on hold.”

In the meantime, coming up Wednesday there’s the much anticipated final episode of “Modern Family,” the popular family comedy that during its 250-episode, 11-year run collected 22 Emmys, including two for Burrell. A one-hour documentary featuring interviews with cast members will air before the series finale.

“It’s sort of a miracle that we were able to complete the show before all the COVID-19 stuff because so many shows had to shut down,” said Ty. “I feel really grateful for a number of reasons. One, our memories of the show will be pre-coronavirus, which I consider a blessing. But also I’m really glad we were able to finish the series because I hope in some small way it’s a distraction for people right now. If we can offer 21 minutes and 40 seconds of diversion therapy then I know that makes me and and all the cast and writers and crew happy.”