Bartender community unites to help friend in need

Amber Hill, manager of The Local PB (John Gibbins)
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The community has galvanized, and I don’t think that would have happened unless it was a person like Joshua Gehlbach.”  ? Pat Giblin, co-founder of Big Josh Foundation

Joshua Gehlbach, or “Big Josh” as he is known to most, is a bright star in the San Diego bar scene. In his 20 years in the hospitality industry, he has served thousands of locals and tourists at Pacific Beach hot spots Moondoggies, Miller’s Field, and PB Pub. Standing around 6 feet 7 inches, his imposing, tattooed frame is a bit intimidating upon first sight, but in reality, Big Josh is a kind and gentle person beloved by many.

When tragic news surfaced in July that the man who means so much to so many had a terminal cancer diagnosis, shockwaves roared through the industry, causing an entire family of bartenders, restaurant and bar owners to burst into action.

Soon after his diagnosis, friends Pat Giblin and Dave Robins joined Gehlbach in creating the Big Josh Foundation, a Go Fund Me campaign built to assist not only Big Josh through his cancer treatment, but also others in the industry who might fall on hard times relating to illness.

On September 26, the foundation held a charity fundraiser at the popular beachside bar, PB Shore Club, raising $24,000 through a raffle. To date, the total amount raised online is more than $32,000. The hope is to reach $1 million by early 2018.

Along with Giblin and Robins, Amber Hill and Vito LaMagese (also longtime friends of Gehlbach’s) got involved with the Big Josh Foundation and the recent Shore Club event. As Thanksgiving and the holidays near, these selfless bar-industry veterans discuss giving back to a comrade and community in need.


Happy birthday Big Josh
When: 5-7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 30
Where: Miller’s Field Pacific Beach
Details: 50/50 raffle, Big Josh “look-a-like” contest, buffet, Big Josh inspired cocktails, tons of raffle prizes and a Big Josh Birthday Toast (the day after his actual birthday). Guest bartenders from some of your favorite spots around SD will be serving up drinks.
More info: 858.483.4143 or

David Robins

Occupation: Owner/bartender of The Bar Key, Pacific Beach; co-founder of Big Josh Foundation

PACIFIC: How long have you known Big Josh?

DAVID ROBINS: He’s been my best friend for 20 years.

What’s the vision of the Big Josh Foundation?

We want to do something on a local level that eventually might be a template for other cities. Josh will be blogging daily when he is medically ready. He will be the voice of the foundation, creating a system that we can (take) to the next patient (in need of) help. We don’t take a salary. The main priority now is to take care of him. Next year, there will be a committee and rules.

How do you hope to reach and help more people?

We definitely want to see this expand, by speaking to larger restaurants, bar chains and restaurant groups - helping them understand that this is a charity for their staff, and this is showing goodwill to your employees.

How would you describe Josh?

On a serious note, very few people are that nice. On a funny note, he will cry at the drop of the hat. He’s impossible to miss and the most imposing person you’ll ever meet, but with the kindest heart. He is truly the Mayor of PB.

Amber Hill

Occupation: Manager, The Local PB

PACIFIC: How long have you known Big Josh?

AMBER HILL: He’s been one of my closest friends for 16 years.

What happened when you found out about his illness?

(The three of us) were some of the first to find out, and finding out makes you feel helpless. So we thought, “Let’s make this an event, and do what we know how to do.” And that’s throw a party.

What was the vibe of the Shore Club fundraiser?

It was insane. We opened at 3 p.m. and immediately we were at max capacity. We had a silent auction with art, surfboards and beach cruisers, 50/50 raffle tickets - where whoever won got half of $24,000. The winner, Tina Marie, was an old friend of Josh and she gave it all back. Even people who had to work that night donated their tips from their shifts. It goes to show you what kind of impact Josh has had, and how big his heart is.

What’s something you learned from Josh?

He truly taught me to never judge a book by his cover. He’s big, tall and full of tattoos, but is the nicest, most genuine, kind-hearted person I’ve ever met in my entire life. It stuck with me that, in this melting pot of San Diego, to not judge people.

Vito LaMagese

Occupation: Manager, PB Shore Club

PACIFIC: How long have you known Josh?

VITO LAMAGESE: Sixteen years - we worked through the industry ranks together.

You’re known for running great charity events. How long have you been doing it? Which are your most memorable?

About 10 years ago, Josh and I started doing a lot of charity fundraisers. We’ve done Movember for years, and Discover PB (events) for the improvement of the Pacific Beach community.

How did you get involved with the Big Josh Foundation?

In July, when he fell ill, I immediately thought, “We need to get a fundraiser together.” Dave, Pat and Josh came up with the foundation. I love helping charities, but now I have one that hits close to home.

What should people know about Josh?

He is one of the most genuine, caring people I’ve ever met. He is selfless and always willing to help out without asking for anything in return. That’s why we’ve done so much together over the years.

How does the September event compare with others you’ve run?

It blew my mind. I’ve done a lot over the years, but this was phenomenal. People came out of the woodwork, some that haven’t seen Josh in 10 years. People were dressing up like him in Kangol hats. People donated. Everyone was helping out and volunteering. I was floored by the energy.

Unforgettable moment so far for the Big Josh Foundation?

When Tina gave back her $12K winnings from the raffle. I’ve never seen so many grown men with tears in their eyes when she did that.