Local eateries are finding ways to feed essential workers on the front lines, furthering the definition of what it means to work in the hospitality industry.
Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Delaware restaurants were faced with just two options: close fully or open partially for take-out and/or delivery.
But, as the saying goes, “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.” For some local restaurant operators, when life handed them a pandemic, they made meals.
Lots of meals…to-go.
“Everything in the world seemed uncertain,” says Sasha Aber of Home Grown Cafe in Newark, as she thinks back to March. “People were in isolation. Healthcare workers were going to work and working harder than usual in an environment they weren’t used to. People were scared. Businesses were closing or working in a minimal capacity.”
Aber decided to take action. On March 30, she announced she was starting a GoFundMe page for an effort called “Adopt-A-Unit,” a concept that would utilize Home Grown Cafe to prepare meals then deliver them to essential workers at Christiana Hospital.
Her initial goal was to raise $5000 to make it happen.
Less than two months later [as of press deadline], Adopt-A-Unit has raised in the neighborhood of $24,000 from 432 donors and delivered more than 2,000 meals to the hospital.
“The extent of this campaign has surpassed anything I thought possible,” Aber says. “We have had general contributions, as well as people sponsoring whole units because they have friends working there, or they received healthcare from that unit, or they had a loved one in that unit.”
Aber sees the effort as a win-win-win situation for three reasons.
First, she has seen firsthand how the meals are valued by staff members at Christiana Hospital.
“Healthcare workers are risking their lives for us,” Aber says. “They are going to work every day in an unsure environment, taking care of our friends and family when we cannot, then returning to their homes, hoping that their families stay healthy.
“Yes, they are in the healthcare industry, but I bet they never imagined this scenario.”
Second, Aber says, so many people are “feeling helpless.” Contributing meals to essential workers offers a way to do something positive.
“The Adopt-A-Unit program gives people a direct line to telling our healthcare workers they care—that we, as the public, are behind them,” Aber says. “It’s a way for the public to be involved in lightening our healthcare worker’s day.”
Third, Aber says the program has helped keep some of her employees working, which is why she has been careful to use the word “contribution” as opposed to “donation.”
“We have been able to bring a few additional staff members back to work on this,” Aber says.
Residents who are interested in contributing to Adopt-A-Unit can go to www.homegrowncafe.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to sponsor a whole unit. Contributions are also being taken through GrubHub.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
For Javier Acuna, being successful in the restaurant business has always meant more than a simple transaction of goods and services—or “just putting food on a table,” as he puts it.
“It’s called the hospitality industry for a reason,” Acuna says. “We do more than just serve meals, we participate in people’s lives.
“We are usually part of people’s most important events: from graduations to birthdays to job advancements and things like that. So, it is in our nature to provide a positive experience and a service.”
In 2014, Acuna was awarded “Restaurateur of the Year,” by the Delaware Restaurant Association for his work with his Hakuna Hospitality Group, an organization that has since grown to six area restaurants, four of which focus on various aspects of Mexican cuisine.
However, when the pandemic struck, Acuna, like other restaurateurs, was presented with an unsettling paradox. Restaurants are exactly the kind of hospitable places people often go to find solace during stressful experiences. With the crisis preventing that kind of social activity, what could he do to improve the overall situation?
“In these times where a lot of people are going to struggle with [getting] food, and a lot of organizations don’t have the time to provide quality meals, the first thing that came to our minds was to continue to do the work that we have been doing,” says Acuna.
His answer became “Food First Delaware,” an initiative he helped create to put unemployed restaurant staffers back to work by fixing and delivering meals to essential workers on the frontlines. He started at square one, working with what he knew best: his own restaurants.
“We didn’t have a strong delivery business at that point,” Acuna admits. “We did some catering. But the thing that we did have was management and, to a certain extent, the employee manpower to implement something that could grow beyond our walls.
“One of the reasons why we did [it this way was] because we wanted to allow other restaurants to participate in this initiative.”
Since its start on April 1, Food First has prepared and delivered more than 1200 meals to essential workers by utilizing Hakuna’s resources and partnering with restaurants like La Casa Pasta and specialists like Have Your Cake Desserts, both in Newark.
“We can work with pretty much anybody who wants to work with us and can provide a level of safety that complies with all the standards and the safety precautions that allows us to serve hospitals and [related] organizations,” Acuna says.
On the Food First website (www.foodfirstde.com), visitors can purchase various meal options, which will be delivered to a local hospital or to one of the organizations that Food First serves, such as Westside Family Healthcare. Acuna says customers can also pick an organization of their choice, if they so wish.
“We connect with workers on the front lines such as hospitals, police stations, fire stations and anywhere else there are essential workers,” Acuna says. “We’re just trying to bring a smile on a daily basis as much as possible.”
DINNER AND A SHOW
Other restaurant groups have had similar success with more recent programs.
Along with three restaurants in New Castle County, High 5 Hospitality Group owns and operates six Buffalo Wild Wings locations throughout Delaware, an advantage that helps them provide meals to hospitals up and down the state.
Starting in late April, High 5’s “Feed the Frontline” program has contributed more than 260 meals to essential workplaces such as Christiana Hospital, Bayhealth Outpatient in Smyrna, and the Respiratory Department at Bayhealth Hosptial in Dover.
Currently the company is working with the State Police, a local fire department, and other groups of healthcare professionals, says High 5 marketing manager Lori Ewald.
“For these frontline workers, the core of their being is helping others,” Ewald says. “They don’t complain. They don’t expect special treatment. They just do.
“When we show up with the food, they are over the top appreciative of us, but in the end, it is us who is appreciative of them. They are the real heroes.”
High 5’s Feed the Frontline got a fortunate boost of help from the Northern Delaware band Feeling Lucky, whose livestream benefit performance on May 9 raised money for the program, $700 solely through the band’s Venmo account.
Residents can support Feed the Frontline program through High 5’s website: www.high5hospitality.com.
A NEED TO HELP
If there is someone who knows something about boosting moods and energy levels, it’s Greg Vogeley, who runs his famed Drip Café coffee-and-brunch shops in Hockessin and
Newark. He feels his “Donate A Meal” program has helped his customers feel more positively connected to their community.
“Our customers really want to help, but they didn’t know how to while quarantined at home,” Vogeley says. “They wanted to find a way to support their favorite restaurants and the people that serve their communities
“The response has been truly amazing. Many of the people who donated initially were family, friends and close customers. But, the more we delivered, our reach for the program grew as well.”
Vogeley started Donate A Meal in late March when a customer asked to purchase 250 meals for local healthcare workers.
“After his initial contribution, we quickly received more requests to help and financially donate to the program. We then created a link on our website [www.dripcafede.com ] that would allow customers to donate directly to the fund.”
THE VALUE OF A MEAL
Acuna sees programs like Vogeley’s Donate A Meal and Hakuna’s Food First as both a human necessity and an economic response.
“As entrepreneurs, we are always looking for ways to move forward into a way to serve a bigger purpose,” Acuna says.
“If you really think about it, feeding and eating is a basic need. It’s something that it is extremely important not only for us as individuals, but as for us as a society. People need to interact. We’re social animals pretty much, and in that there is a dynamic that is extremely necessary for our own survival.
“So, I think that the restaurants facilitating a good meal goes a long way. We’re touching people’s lives every day with every meal.”