In a move described as “spring training” to help his New York City restaurants get back in action, Danny Meyer this week will convert three venues into community kitchens to prepare meals for food-insecure residents in South Bronx.
The program is a partnership between Brookfield Properties, which has committed $1 million to support the effort, and Rethink Food, a nonprofit founded in 2017 to reclaim unused food from restaurant kitchens to feed those in need. Since the pandemic, Rethink has also set up a Restaurant Response Program through which concepts — from Eleven Madison Park to Esme —are producing hundreds of meals each day for food-insecure families.
Meyer said his New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group, or USHG, will take the lead in the effort, which has a goal of preparing 125,000 meals that will be distributed by Rethink in the South Bronx. Other restaurants are invited to join USHG in reaching that goal with Brookfield's financial support.
The program will not only allow USHG to rehire up to 20 workers, it will also allow the group to reactivate restaurants that have been closed since March following the coronavirus-related shutdown of dine-in service. At the time, USHG laid off about 2,000 people, or 80% of staff.
In the past two weeks, however, Meyer said the company has been “limping back.”
Outdoor dining is available at four of the group’s restaurants: Daily Provisions, Marta, Blue Smoke and Tacocina, he said.
The founding concept Union Square Café has turned itself into a “bottle shop,” selling wines that have been cellared for some time, he said, as well as snacks. Gramercy Tavern has been offering comfort foods to-go, like burgers and lobster set meals.
“These entrepreneurial activities are fine and I’m proud of our team, but they’re really just biding time,” he said.
The group is waiting for city officials to give the green light for reopening for dine-in service, and he wants to be ready. That’s how the community kitchen program will help, he said.
Just as Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are allowing players to come back to empty stadiums, Meyer wants his cooks to come back to empty restaurants.
“We really want to activate our kitchens,” he said. “I don’t want to start from a crouch position. This is our version of spring training.”
The community kitchen meals will be prepared in three of the group’s facilities:
- Marta, a restaurant in The Redbury Hotel that has a large kitchen designed for banquet services, and also serves the temporarily closed Vini e Fritti. Marta is now open for outdoor dining only, but Meyer said the restaurant has a lot of unused kitchen capacity.
- Intersect by Lexus, a restaurant designed as a brand expression for the car company that has rotating “restaurants in residence.” Meyer said the venue has a two-floor kitchen and Lexus has been enthusiastic about using the facility to support the Rethink program.
- Union Square Events. This catering kitchen is one of the group’s largest, he said.
To encourage other restaurants to join in the Brookfield/Rethink program, USHG is also offering to share best practices. USHG , for example, has developed a 36-page playbook for reopening post pandemic, including details on everything from training and menu development to safety protocols, Meyer said.
USHG doesn’t currently have restaurants in Brookfield properties, but it will in 2021, when the group is scheduled to open a new concept in Manhattan West.
Brookfield, however, is building a $950 million, 4.3-acre mixed-use development in the South Bronx called Bankside, scheduled to open in 2023, which will include seven residential towers. About 30% of the apartments will be affordable units, said Sara Fay, Brookfield Properties senior vice president.
“We chose to focus on the South Bronx because, first, it has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, but also because the Bankside project is there, and it’s one of the largest private investments undertaken in the neighborhood,” said Fay. “Brookfield is so thrilled about this program, to be able to provide food to food-insecure families affected by COVID … and also to help bring restaurant workers back to work.”
USHG joins a number of multiconcept groups that have devoted time, talent and kitchen space to feeding those in need, including José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen; Hope Breakfast Bar in Minneapolis and Edward Lee’s McAtee Community Kitchen in Louisville, Ky.
Meyer said it’s a “quadruple win” for all involved: the company is able to ramp up the supply chain and rehire workers, get kitchens working again and feed hungry people.
“We want to be back in business someday and this is giving us a really productive way to do that,” he said. “My hope is that, while we’re using this almost as CPR for our kitchens right now, I fully intend and expect our kitchens to be back as restaurants.
“But even when we’re able to serve guests legally again, it’ll be at reduced capacity,” he added. “Wouldn’t it be better to be utilizing some of your excess [kitchen] capacity to feed people who otherwise would to be able to afford to eat in your restaurants?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a to-go menu item at Gramercy Tavern, and the meal goal for the Union Square Hospitality Group/Brookfield partnership has been clarified.
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