As the COVID-19 outbreak puts people out of work, restaurant employees — many of whom are out of work themselves — are stepping up to help.
Jeff Bacon, the vice president and executive director of Providence, sent out an email last week to about 100 culinary professionals in the area to brainstorm about ways to help restaurant and other hospitality workers. Many of those workers have been laid off with no paid sick leave and no health benefits.
“It first popped into my head because Adam Barnett (of the Katharine Brasserie), Tim Grandinetti (of Spring House and Quanto Basta) and a few other people were calling me saying, ‘How can I help? We have all this food in our coolers, and it’s going to go to waste,’” Bacon said.
During a conference call Friday, he and other chefs hashed out a plan. Bacon got Truist Financial Corp., the landlord of Providence Kitchen's recently closed location in the BB&T Building to allow volunteers to use its kitchen. Chefs at closed restaurants and elsewhere donated food.
Beginning today, from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for the foreseeable future, Bacon and other volunteers will serve boxed meals to hospitality workers — those put out of work by affected restaurants, bars and hotels.
Today, the team plans to serve 100 boxed meals, limited to four per person, to hospitality workers.
Chef Dion Sprenkle, the executive banquet chef for the now-empty Benton Convention Center, spent much of Tuesday prepping chicken and Italian-style potatoes for distribution today.
Bacon said that every day will have one lead chef, three other kitchen workers, two prep cooks and two customer-service workers.
Lead chefs include Grandinetti; James Naquin of Krankies; Sammy Gianopoulos of Fratellis Italian Steakhouse, Sammy G’s Tavern and Three Bulls Steakhouse; and John Bobby of Bobby Boy Bakeshop. Niki Farrington of SILO Bistro & Bar and Vanessa Lanier of Providence Kitchen also are helping out.
Recipients will not be allowed inside the restaurant at 200 W. Second St. in downtown Winston-Salem. Instead, they will be handed their boxed food on the side patio or in their cars at the curbside. In case of a crowd or a line, Bacon said, they have a plan to enforce social distancing.
“And I’m hoping that we’ll pretty much have the same crew working every Wednesday, the same team every Thursday,” he said. “It may not work out that way perfectly, but we’ll have the same people working together as much as possible.”
Bacon said he currently has food supplies to last at least a week.
“But it will be like a mystery-box competition every day, because I don’t know what supplies we’ll get,” he said.
The chefs already are looking further ahead. Gianopoulos has volunteered to be in charge of procuring donations of additional supplies, from food distributors and other sources.
Bacon said he also hopes to get some funding that not only will help pay for food but also could pay some of the laid-off workers who will be preparing and packaging the food.
A separate initiative to feed those in need is being spearheaded by Pete Strates, a co-owner of o’So Eats and The Sherwood, in coordination with Family Services.
Beginning Thursday, Strates and other restaurant volunteers will begin giving away boxed meals to Family Services’ Head Start clients from 1 to 3 p.m. at First Baptist Church at 700 N. Highland Ave.
“When all this started to hit, I was watching governors of other states talk about how sometimes when kids don’t go to school, they don’t eat and that really stuck with me,” Strates said.
He said that even before North Carolina schools closed, he had contacted the principal at Southwest Elementary School, which his son attends, about ways to help.
With the school-cafeteria food program in operation, Strates began looking around for other ways to help and eventually connected with Family Services.
“Pete called us and he was looking for a way to get food directly to people who needed it and to do it quickly,” said Michelle Speas, the chief development and public-relations officer for Family Services.
Family Services, founded in 1905 as Associated Charities, is Forsyth County’s oldest charity, and its mission is to help people experiencing poverty, unemployment and domestic upheaval.
“We were called in 1918 to help with the last pandemic, and here we are again,” Speas said, referring to the Spanish flu outbreak that year.
Strates has solicited donations from customers, relatives, fellow restaurateurs — just about anyone he could think of.
On Thursday, he plans to provide 500 meals of pasta with sauce, bread, salad and milk to Family Services’ Head Start clients. The food will be prepared Thursday morning at o’So and The Sherwood and sent by truck hot and ready to be distributed to First Baptist.
“We chose First Baptist partly because the Rev. Paul Robeson Ford is on our board,” Speas said. “It will be all drive-thru. ... We’re also recommending that people let us put the food in the trunk of their cars, just so we can be careful about social distancing.”
Strates said that Vernon Produce has agreed to donate some food. He also has received offers of help from fellow restaurateurs at Duke’s Restaurant, Camel City BBQ, Courtside Cafe, Greek Guy’s Grill, Johnny B's Grillhouse, Whitaker Square Pizza, Di Lisio’s Italian Restaurant and Mario’s Pizza.
Given the great response from the restaurant community, Strates said, he’s hoping he will be able to do this more in the coming weeks. He already has enough donations to serve another 500 meals.
“I can’t stress enough how the restaurants have stepped up,” he said. “Everyone is like, ‘Whatever you need.’”