A local startup has come up with a colorful way to represent the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the image of a pastel teddy bear sporting a face mask on T-shirts and sweatshirts.

The proceeds from their sale go to help out local tip-based employees, restaurants and first responders. Forming a coalition of local restaurants, charities and talent, TeesForTips has raised nearly $1,000 from donations and garment sales since it officially launched on April 1.

Pennington artist Matthew Langille created this drawing of a bear wearing a mask.

It started when Ben Sanford, owner of Café Seventy-Two in Ewing and Cugino’s Italian Market in Pennington, tried to raise funds for staff who had been laid off since the onset of COVID-19 restrictions. Donations fizzled out quickly, and Sanford was left to figure out another way to help his employees and the community.

Scrolling through Instagram one day, Sanford noticed a drawing of a teddy bear with a face mask on his old high school friend’s account. He liked it, and the partnership grew from there.

“I had been trying to think of how can we continue the awareness, how can we continue to get funds generated and donated and I came up with this idea of what if we sold shirts or hooded sweatshirts with this bear on it, which basically symbolizes the fact that nobody is spared from this situation,” Sanford said. “Even teddy bears are wearing a mask essentially.”

Sanford, a graduate of Lawrence High School, reached out to artist Matthew Langille, a fellow LHS alumnus who works in the fashion industry and collaborates with designers including Marc Jacobs, Adidas and Swatch. Recently Langille has worked on shoe designs for the brand K-Swiss.

Langille’s work, sold around the world through his collaborations with big fashion names has been affected by the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.

His work in creating graphics as well as collaborating with brands as a brand consultant or creative director has been paused as the uncertainty in his industry has caused gig opportunities to slow and stores to halt orders in fear of being left with inventory.

The artist, now a Pennington resident, had been at home with only the current situation as creative inspiration. Many of his work projects were placed on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In the past year or two, Langille has gravitated to sketching whimsical graphics on cardboard boxes with pastels. He puts on some music, and without heavy thought, lets his creations take shape. One of his latest products was a little teddy bear, swirled with color and forced to wear a face mask. It coincidentally struck a chord with Sanford, who reached out to him about using the image.

“I just thought it would be really nice to use this image to help at least some of his employees or some local people and just see where it went,” Langille said.

Although he normally works with pen and paper, Langille’s cardboard creations can be seen on his Instagram along with his other work. This global crisis allowed for the inspiration and time for his COVID-19 teddy bear, among other sketches.

An integral part of Langille’s creative process is not forcing creativity. He expressed that until his pen hits paper he doesn’t overthink the design.

Like a lot of his work, the teddy bear just seemed to emerge from him.

Hoping the image resonates with people and helps carry TeesForTips to aiding more and more of those in need, Langille said that the startup has branched out to assist waiters, part-time workers and first responders. Their efforts look to help those that are in the scary position of losing employment or fighting on the COVID-19 front lines.

“Initially we had thought this would be for tip-based employees and then we realized that the spread and the reach is just so much bigger than that after we started talking to charities and listening to their needs,” Sanford said.

This isn’t the first time Langille’s artwork has gained attention amid a pandemic. In 2009, he designed three watches for the Swiss watchmaker Swatch for their artist collection. This added him to a list of powerhouse artists who have collaborated with Swatch including Keith Haring, Vivienne Westwood and Kiki Picasso. One of the watches he designed was called “the Germaholic.” Billboards around the globe—China, Spain, Times Square—featured Langille’s name and the Germaholic watch.

This was a big moment in Langille’s career. It also happened to coincide with the H1N1 pandemic. In one interview, the reporter asked Langille if the release of his watch was prophetic. The designing, creating and marketing of the watch took years, prompting an interviewer to ask him, “How did you know that H1N1 was coming?”

Langille, of course, didn’t. But he still enjoys the playful design of the Germaholic watch, featuring a germ cartoon that can’t stand being around other germs for its fear of illness. The watch was a great success and carried on his quirky design style.

“My artwork’s always kind of addressed the fun and the whimsy and the humor in things,” he said.

He recalls when he came out of college in 2004, there was a lot of dark artwork circulating in the wake of 9/11.

“I just decided you know what I’m going to just start making stuff that makes people smile and makes people happy,” Langille said.

When he takes on serious issues with his work, he approaches it from a light-hearted perspective—just as the COVID-19 teddy bear brings to the TeesForTips mission.

United under Langille’s graphic, TeesForTips is partnered with both of Sanford’s local restaurants, Pennington Bagel, Acacia Restaurant, Cattani Catering & Kitchen, Sumo Sushi & Teppanyaki, Fedora Bistro Café and Wildflowers Inn Restaurant.

Sanford used his personal relationships with local small business owners to join forces to help increase TeesForTips reach to potential donors and people purchasing their apparel.
When a charity or organization needs meals prepared, Sanford is able to check back with this band of restaurants and see who has the capacity to fill the order.

“We’re looking to generate as much revenue as possible for these restaurants, including ourselves,” Sanford said. “Try to bring back some unemployed workers in order to fill these bigger orders.”

TeesForTips also partnered with HomeFront, Children’s Specialized Hospital and Christine’s Hope For Kids.

Sanford explained that they stay in contact with what the charities may need, whether that’s prepared meals or a donation.

Recently TeesForTips did a mask match with HomeFront and supplied a $300 donation to help give masks to Capital Health and Robert Wood Johnson Hospital workers.

The current amount taken from apparel purchases is a $10 minimum from shirts towards the fund and a $20 minimum from sweatshirts. As more orders come in, allowing TeesForTips to get lower production costs, the percentage donated from each purchase is set to increase. Direct donations are also accepted in $5 increments on the TeesForTips “Shop & Donate” page.

Princeton resident Suki Wasserman, HomeFront’s community engagement coordinator, was familiar with Sanford’s restaurants when he reached out to them about TeesForTips. Sanford was looking to help non-profits in the area, which included Lawrence-based HomeFront.

“Our whole ethos and our whole history is about local folks coming together to help our neighbors in need and so this fits right with our ethos,” Wasserman said. “We really like that.”

She went on to express that HomeFront also enjoys the use of a local artist’s work in collaboration with TeesForTips’ efforts. The idea is to have something people will share on social media and spread the word even more.

Another charity involved also shared how they were happy to see a local artist involved.
Christine’s Hope For Kids, a nonprofit based out of Pennington, partnered with TeesForTips after having a charitable relationship with Sanford’s restaurants in the past. Seeing the work the startup was doing to get food to local organizations and help keep businesses afloat by giving them business were goals that aligned with Christine’s Hope For Kids’ mission, director Melissa D’Amico said.

It has donated a considerable financial amount to TeesForTips and looks to work to help get resources to those in need.

“Not only are we getting the resources to the community but we’re keeping businesses open that otherwise may be shut down right now and keeping employees on staff that otherwise maybe had to be laid off by now,” D’Amico said. “So I like how there’s two aspects to what they’re doing.”

For more information on TeesForTips and to purchase apparel or donate, visit its website.

Correction, April 15, 9:30 a.m.: This article has been changed from its original version to reflect that Suki Wasserman is community engagement coordinator at Homefront. It originally misstated Wasserman’s title as coordinator of Homefront’s community engagement team.