Operators across the country are transforming shuttered dining rooms into relief pantries for laid-off hospitality workers and community members.

By Andrea Strong
Updated May 26, 2020
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Irvington Bar and Restaurant

Across the country, the coronavirus pandemic has forced restaurants to shutter, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers and operators without jobs and income. In New York City, for example, a survey by the NYC Hospitality Alliance has found that 67,650 employees have been laid off or furloughed since Friday, March 20, when Governor Cuomo mandated that non-essential businesses close, and restaurants only provide delivery or takeout.

“It’s devastating,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “Restaurants, bars and clubs and the people who work at them are the fabric of our communities. We need to do everything in our power, as fast as possible, to support these businesses and revive New York City’s economy, while protecting public health and safety.”

While dozens of restaurant relief funds have sprung up in nearly every city in the country, some operators are approaching the problem in a slightly different way, turning their shuttered restaurants into free food pantries for their unemployed staff and community members.

One of the leaders of this movement is Scott Gerber, principal and CEO of the Gerber Group, which operates 15 bars in New York City, Atlanta and Washington, DC. Gerber has closed all of his businesses and laid off all 400 of his employees.

The first week after closures, he emptied his walk-ins and pantry, donating all the food to unemployed workers from his various properties. But he didn’t want the donations to end after the food ran out. He decided to continue placing bulk orders with his vendors, turning his shuttered bars and restaurants into free employee food pantries.

Irvington Bar and Restaurant

“When we had to lay off all our employees, we knew they would have a hard time,” he said. “They are minimum wage workers who are used to their tips, so unemployment would not cut it. And it was abrupt.”

Gerber is running three food pantries at the moment; he has designated Irvington as the food pantry for all his New York employees, in Atlanta, the pantry is at Whiskey Blue at the W in Buckhead, and in Washington, D.C., the pantry is at Twelve Stories at the Intercontinental Hotel. The pantries are stocked with produce, eggs, dairy, proteins like chicken and beef, canned tomatoes and beans, pasta and ramen, as well as essentials like toilet paper and more.

Gerber’s pantries are open once a week for pick up, and shopping times are staggered to maintain social distancing. For those who cannot make it into the city, Gerber has had employees volunteer to deliver baskets of food to them.

“It’s such a nice and genuine move from our company’s part to help out everyone that’s gotten laid off,” says Claudia Duran, who is 26 and has worked for the company since 2016, starting out as a host and moving up to her current role as manager. “Many of our staff were full time and depended on the income. With the food pantry, we are taking care of our family even in rough times.”

Duran says the food pantry has brought the team closer. “Scott has stopped by and provided emotional support to the staff. It’s not just the employees running this; everyone is involved. If a staff member is unable to come, we have also delivered right to their door.”

Irvington Bar and Restaurant

For now, Gerber and his partners are funding the pantries out of their own pockets. “We made the decision to use our own money because we have always treated our company like family. Our people have made us successful, and they will make us successful again.”

To continue to keep the food pantry going as long as it is needed, the Gerber Group has also started a GoFundMe page for friends, family, and guests to donate to an emergency cash fund for their laid-off staff. “I have been in the business for 28 years,” said Gerber. “I am doing this out of loyalty to our employees. I am not sure people realize how devastating this has been to our employees.”

Other initiatives like Gerber’s have been popping up across the country. One particularly impressive one is The Restaurant Workers Relief Program, a partnership between Makers Mark, The Lee Initiative and chef Edward Lee, which is transforming dozens of shuttered restaurants into food pantry relief centers for laid-off industry workers.

Seven nights a week at participating restaurants, teams pack hundreds of to-go meals for laid-off workers to pick up and take home. In addition to prepared dinners, the restaurants supply essentials such as diapers, baby food, non-perishable canned foods and cereals, toilet paper, paper towels, notebooks and pencils, aspirin, and more, along with bags of fresh produce. Chef Lee says they plan to continue to offer this program until they can no longer financially support it.

The list of participating restaurants is growing, but as of now it includes Brooklyn’s Olmsted and Gertie, Cochon in New Orleans, Big Star Wicker Park in Chicago, The Source Hotel & Market Hall in Denver, Salare in Seattle, Mita’s in Cincinnati. Chi Spacca in Los Angeles, Succotash in Washington D.C., 610 Magnolia in Louisville, and Tuk Tuk and Great Bagel Boston Road in Lexington, KY.

Other individual restaurants are working in a more ad hoc manner, doing what they can to feed those laid-off workers. Greenpoint Fish & Lobster in Brooklyn is launching its own “Family Meal” on Sunday March 29 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.. It will consist of a dinner that is free for anyone out of work at the moment and for anyone else, it’s $20.

Irvington Bar and Restaurant

Bar Bruno, a neighborhood Mexican bistro in Brooklyn, is serving a free boxed kids burrito and chips to those in need 12:30-2:30 p.m. on weekdays. “Helping and being of service to each other in our community is a positive way to counter the anxiety and negativity during this difficult time,” wrote the owner on Instagram.

RSCMS Restaurant Group, which includes Lupa, Felidia, Otto, and Del Posto, is offering cooked meals and groceries free of charge to their employees. Meals are distributed on a first come, first serve basis and made from food donated by Dairyland, Pat LaFrieda, Chef's Warehouse, and Prime Line Distributors, in addition to what is currently in each restaurant's pantry.

Feelings of uncertainty and anxiety are running high, but efforts like those of Gerber, Lee, and others in the industry have created a sense of support for many, helping to lift the burden of this strange and stressful new normal. “There are a lot of thoughts running through my head, like, How long will this take? What’s going to happen when I run out of resources? What if I get sick? Who would take care of my family?” said Irvington’s general manager Omar Vicuna, who is 39 and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens with his wife and two children.

“Right now I have to be strong for my children, tell them that everything is going to be fine, and be positive that this will end soon," he said. "Having the food pantry makes me feel thankful and proud of having a company that cares about their employees, and also that my colleagues and myself will be able to put food on our tables for our families. Something I’ve learned and keep learning is that we are all in this together and that we must help each other in any way that we can. These are very frightful times, but we will recover, and we will come back stronger than before.”