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Jaleo, a José Andrés restaurant in Washington D.C., has turned into a community kitchen.

How restaurants are stepping up to help their communities during the coronavirus pandemic, from providing toilet paper to meal kits

Both independent and chain restaurants are giving back to emergency workers, the elderly and people in need during the time of COVID-19 panic

As the foodservice industry enters crisis mode during the coronavirus pandemic, and restaurant traffic continues to dwindle while brands rely on delivery and takeout, community giving is on the rise. With creative solutions that can help struggling restaurants pivot to a new aid-focused business model (like becoming a community kitchen or temporary grocery delivery service), or by simply donating extra food and resources to those in need, restaurants are on the front lines of the “good news” coming out of this pandemic panic.

Here are just some of the ways that restaurants are reaching out to their communities.

Providing meal kits and groceries

As grocery shelves are emptied, restaurants are in a unique position to provide some much-needed relief for communities. Starting March 19, Dallas-based Homewood restaurant is putting together a $55 Farmers Box for delivery. Each box contains produce and goods from local farmers, including a whole chicken, salad greens, fresh vegetables and pickles and mustard from the restaurant itself.

For other restaurants that are forced to close during the pandemic, giving out food to communities is a humble way to clean out their pantries and fridges before temporarily shutting down. Before shuttering their doors temporarily, New Jersey-based Ani Ramen House made and gave out 1,300 free family meal kits on March 19 including enough broth, noodles, vegetables and protein to feed a family of three or four.

“We decided it made sense to make the most of a bad situation and take our remaining inventory of fresh ingredients and supplement it with generous product donations from our ramen partners Sun Noodle to create meal kits to give to our loyal customers in need,” Ani Ramen owner Luck Sarabhayavanija said.   

Although it might make more sense for a restaurant to participate in a food or groceries giveaway, some restaurants are helping out with other supplies.  

Newport Beach, Calif.-based restaurateur Mario Marovic, owner of Malarky’s Irish Pub, Dory Deli, Playa Mesa, and Matador Cantina posted on his social media channels that his team has stocked up on 4,000 rolls of toilet paper and will be giving them away for free for any community members in need on Friday, March 20.

“Flatten the TP crisis curve,” Malarky’s Irish Pub wrote on its social media pages. “Grocery stores are empty, but we’ve got your back.”

Opening community kitchens and restaurants

As dining rooms close around the country in accordance with city and statewide quarantine jurisdictions, restaurants are getting creative with their services. Chef José Andrés is turning six of his shuttered restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C. into temporary community kitchens.

To-go lunches at the gourmet soup kitchens will cost $7 (for those who can afford it) and meals will also be offered on a sliding scale basis.  

“People will be able to take food home, people will be able to eat right outside the restaurant,” Andrés said in a video announcing the initiative. “We always said we want to change the world through the power of food, and I do believe that phrase has a huge meaning today.”

Andrés is not the only one taking this route to keep employees working and continuing to serve the community.

Boulder, Colo. restaurant Arcana is transforming into a “sliding scale community meal program.” The first 50 meal deliveries on March 17 were delivered to families in need for free. The community meals include menu options like prime rib, salmon, vegan stew, loaves of bread, Arcana’s homemade ice cream and various side dishes, costs $20 per person, with a sliding scale option for those who cannot afford the price tag. People can call in, place an order and arrange for a pickup time at the restaurant.

“It makes sense to us to allow the guests (from afar) tell us what price the market can bear, and it allows us to feed people who truly can't afford it,” restaurant co-owner Elliott Toan said. “We love the business, but deep down we all just want to feed people and make them happy. This has been the most rewarding part.  For our higher value items, we began with a minimum donation of either $5 of $10.  Today we are going to lean all the way into $0 as lowest price on everything, it just feels right.”

Of course, as restaurants close around the country, one of the neediest demographics is foodservice employees. As Anoush’ella, the eastern Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant in Boston, had to close two of their locations, the team realized that they had enough leftover food to give away to people in need. The restaurant will now be giving away food for 60-70 restaurant workers every day for the next three weeks.

“It’s simply the right thing to do,” Raffi Festekjian, co-owner of Anoush’ella said. “Both Nina [Festekjian, executive chef and primary owner of the restaurant] and I are immigrants […] and truly understand how much everyone has to come together during these difficult times. In addition, this country has given us so much as far as opportunity, comfort, freedom and success that we feel we need to somehow give back.”

The Festekjians decided not to continue to work and have asked their managers to do the same for the next couple of weeks so that they can continue to pay their employees to keep the community kitchen open for out-of-work restaurant and bar employees.

Fundraising and discounts for people in need

Beyond opening up their kitchens to communities, many restaurants are raising money and providing free meals to people who have lost their jobs, or those on the frontlines who can’t stay home from work.

For example, Washington, D.C.-based pizza chain &pizza has been providing free pizzas to hospital workers, and 77-unit, Washington, D.C.-based salad chain Sweetgreen has started to do the same, partnering with nearby hospitals across their system to deliver healthy meals to doctors, nurses, and emergency workers on call.

Another chain that’s trying to offer some help for community members in need is 44-unit, Rochester, NY-based sandwich shop, DiBella’s Subs, which is offering a 50% discount for all first responders, healthcare workers and active military. They will also be donating half of all non-discounted sales to community food banks for the foreseeable future.

“Doctors, nurses, first responders all need us right now,” DiBella’s Subs director of marketing, AJ Shear said. “These are the same people who makes transactions in our restaurants every day. They’ve been here for us, helping us grow our business over the years. Now it’s our time to be there for them. There is nothing more important we can do.”

Some restaurant brands are skipping the discounts and directly raising money for charitable causes, like Panda Express, which announced the donation of $2 million thorough its philanthropic arm, Panda Cares, to the nonprofit anti-hunger organization, Feeding America.

Other restaurants that are used to putting charity and community before profit, like Everytable, a Los Angeles-based healthy quick-service restaurant with nine locations and a focus on keeping prices low and delivering food to underserved communities, are simply doing more than they usually do for people in need. With the COVID-19 crisis in full swing, Everytable has simply amplified what they already do for their communities by launching a coronavirus helpline for people in need.

“Our helpline team’s objective on each call is to assess the need or issue, route any calls to members of the team who can be of further assistance, provide resources to callers, and help our guests place online delivery or subscription orders as needed,” a representative with Everytable said.

Everytable’s helpline operators are talking to government organizations, senior centers, and nonprofit foundations to develop discount and donation programs for people in need. For example, for every household that subscribes to their meal kit subscription programs (starting at $5), Everytable will donate two meals to Santa Monica college students in need. But how long will they be able to sustain this newly pivoted business model?

“Everytable will do this for as long as people are calling and are in need of support,” the company responded.

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected] 

Follow her on Twitter: @joannafantozzi

For our most up-to-date coverage, visit the coronavirus homepage.

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