Restaurants Helping COVID-19 Efforts Offer Inspiration, but It Doesn’t Come Without Sacrifice

Photo: Getty Images/CherriesJD; Graphic: W+G Creative
Like many industries, the food industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. After all, restaurants, cafes, and bars are gathering places, and gatherings of all types have been put on hold. Ditto for the types of events that catering companies depend on. Many businesses have been forced to lay off the bulk of their employees, or cease operating completely, for what is hoped to be a temporary period of time.

In extremely difficult times, some restaurants and food services have pivoted their day-to-day operations to a new mission: feeding health-care workers on the front lines of COVID-19, as well as those who are struggling to afford food (unfortunately, a growing need). Some restaurants helping COVID-19 efforts are doing so free of charge, while also attempting to keep enough money coming in so their own employees still have a paycheck at the end of the day.

As you'll see, many businesses have still had to lay off employees, even as they find new purpose in the COVID-19 storm. Aligning with a new mission—no matter how selfless—can't save the restaurant industry. But pivoting in a new direction is helping many continue to do what they do best: feeding people.

Shifting gears to support the front line

Pre-COVID-19, Washington D.C. Afghan restaurant Aracosia (which has three locations) was the type of place many attended on special occasions. Bottles of wine flowed easily over three-course meals enjoyed in an opulent dining room. But in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic fully hit the U.S., owner Omar Masroor gathered his employees and announced a new plan: providing free meals to local health-care workers and homeless shelters.

"Now, we feed between 150 and 200 people a day, between the homeless shelters, first responders, health-care workers, refugees, and charities we work with," Masroor says. They take the same foods normally on the restaurant's menu (like lamb shanks and chicken stews) and deliver them to places in need of food. "We just want to give people a little glimpse of normalcy in the midst of everything that's going on." All three Aracosia locations are still open for takeout and delivery, which is helping keep some money coming in.

Like most restaurants, Masroor says Aracosia's business has taken a hit because of COVID-19 (he estimates a profit reduction of 80 percent), but so far he's been able to keep everyone on staff and able to provide food for the donated meals. "Right now, we have a profit margin that allows us to feed 150 to 200 people a day and still be okay financially," Masroor says. "Some of the executives on my team came to me and said they could do with a lower income to help," Masroor says. "My team is so amazing that it brings tears to my eyes."

However, not everyone was on board with this new vision. Even with new safety measures in place (everyone must wear masks and gloves, and they try to keep six feet apart, when possible), some employees said they didn't feel safe continuing to work and chose to sign up for unemployment instead. Masroor says he absolutely understands this, and will welcome them back after the pandemic ends.

Despite very real financial uncertainty, Masroor hopes to be able to feed those in need for as long as possible. "I don't know what it will look like for us in two weeks, or three weeks, but that's what we can do right now. Our goal right now is not to make money. It's to share love with people," he says.

"Our goal right now is not to make money. It's to share love with people." — Omar Masroor, Aracosia owner

Fast casual farm-to-table chain Dig (formerly called Dig Inn), which has 32 locations in three major U.S. cities, has also changed their day-to-day operations to prioritize feeding health-care workers and vulnerable populations. "When the crisis hit, we started a bowl-for-bowl donation program where we donated a free meal for every meal that was ordered online. But we quickly realized that the need was so much greater," says Taylor Lanzet, Dig's head of supply and sustainability.

On March 19, they launched a new text-for-meals service, Dig Feeds, allowing health-care workers to text DIGFEEDS to request a free meal be delivered to them at work. (People can directly donate to Dig Feeds to support the free meals service.) Dig also coordinates directly with local charities (including food banks and senior citizen centers) to meet meal needs in various ways as well. "One organization asked for baby food, so we made baby food. We are just trying to help in any way we can," Lanzet says. Since launching the program in mid-March, she says Dig has delivered over 86,000 free meals.

Tara Maxey, the co-founder of organic farm-to-table catering company, Heirloom LA, says giving back has always been part of their mission, but COVID-19 really took that mission to the forefront. Every Monday is now devoted to making meals for Los Angeles health-care workers and homeless shelters. "Right now we're really operating at cost-for-labor and not making a profit, but that, in addition to donations, is allowing us to do this," she says, adding that they make an average of 250 free meals every Monday, which are dropped off at locations including USC Medical Center and Basset Park Homeless Shelter. (If you want to donate to their efforts, click here.)

Navigating the difficult realities of today's economic situation

Unfortunately, many restaurants still have the major obstacle of not being able to keep everyone on their payroll. Good intentions aren't enough to keep staffs employed, or in some cases, even keep the doors open. Lanzet says Dig Inn, for example, had to close 20 of their 32 locations and lay off 70 percent of the team. She says the hope is that these measures are temporary and while difficult in the short-term will hopefully allow the company to survive long-term. To help employees who have been laid off, Dig Inn joined forces with other New York City-based restaurants to launch ROAR, a restaurant employee relief fund. (It is partnered with an independent non-profit, Robin Hood, which will manage the donations.)

Meanwhile, Last Resort Grill owner Melissa Clegg (who's based in Athens, Georgia) knew that she likely wouldn't be able to keep her business open during the COVID-19 crisis. So she pivoted her approach to try and minimize the effects of closure on her staff as much as possible. Starting at the end of February, she stockpiled as many pantry staples as she could to create food boxes along with a 21-day meal plans (which included frozen meals) for her employees. "We closed our restaurant doors March 15, the first restaurant in our city to do so, and then distributed these grocery boxes to our 56 employees," Clegg says, in an effort to show her appreciation and to keep her team fed for at least a month. While she had to lay off the staff, she made sure that their health benefits would continue for three additional months. She hopes to be able to hire them back once the worst of the crisis has been lifted.

"This has inspired us to think about what we do with food in a whole new way." — Taylor Lanzet, Dig Inn

With them taken care of as best as she could, she started thinking about what she could do for health-care workers and first responders fighting COVID-19. The answer: cake. "We've had a relationship with a small-family run bakery here, Celia's Cake, since 1992. They've managed to keep their doors open, so we started a [donation page] on our restaurant's site to cover the wholesale cost of cakes to be donated to those on the front lines," Clegg says. The partnership launched last week and so far eight cakes have been donated. Clegg is also encouraging fans of Last Resort Grill to purchase a gift certificate, with 50 percent of the proceeds going towards employees to keep them afloat.

Maxey says that while Heirloom doesn't currently have work for many of their former contract workers (such as caterers), they've been able to keep their full-time employees on, having them work in shifts to allow more room for physical distancing in the workplace. "It's the same number of hours, it's just to make sure people have more space, and employees have been happy to do this," Maxey says.

Maxey and Lanzet both say that committing to a new mission has also provided a way for them to keep their farmers and food suppliers in business. "Many farmers struggle even in the best of times, so they really need our help right now," Maxey says. "It feels really good to write them checks."

Different restaurant and food company owners are finding their own unique ways to help others during this world-wide crisis, and they're doing so without a blueprint in place or knowing how long this new normal will last. But in finding ways to help meet needs, many say it's inspired them to keep a give-back mentality in place, even after the pandemic is over. "This has inspired us to think about what we do with food in a whole new way," Lanzet says.

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