On March 14, Nicole Straight’s daughter, a college freshman whose studies in California had been interrupted, was back in her hometown working a shift at Westport EMS where she had volunteered for several years. Early COVID-19 cases were rapidly spreading through the state, but businesses had not yet been ordered to shut down.
Like any mom would be, Straight was worried about her daughter. And like any mom, she remembered that while food doesn’t make everything better, it almost always helps. So she called a local restaurant and ordered 40 individual packaged meals to deliver to Westport EMS and the ER at Norwalk Hospital. That night she posted about her decision to buy the meals on a few local Facebook groups and asked others if they wanted to contribute.
“By the next morning I had collected over $2,000,” she says.
In the days that followed she connected with CTBites.com and launched a GoFundMe campaign called Food for the Front Line that has raised more than $74,000 for meals for health care workers. While Straight was one of the first in the state to start coordinating the delivery of meals to front-line workers, she has not been alone in these efforts.
As the novel coronavirus spread from Fairfield County up the coastline and inland to other parts of the state, restaurant owners here joined others across the country in launching their own crowdfunding campaigns and working to deliver meals en masse to hospitals, health care facilities, and others in need throughout the region. By mid-April, thousands of meals were being delivered each week.
In addition to feeding front-line workers, donations to these various campaigns are helping support restaurant owners and employees whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic. But funds raised may be more of a band-aid than the extensive gauze wrap the industry needs.
“Curbside, takeout, delivery and even meals to health care workers is not enough to keep the majority of restaurants afloat,” says Yvette M. Tavares, membership director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association. “What it does, however, is buy more time. It offers some extra revenue to pay staff, pay some bills and maintain some form of market presence until this crisis passes.”
And in the process it’s also giving health care workers something to look forward to and one less thing to worry about.
“It’s amazing to me the food train that’s coming along through the hospital,” says Dr. Karl Kulikowski, interim chairman of anesthesia for Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk hospitals. “It really has been a groundswell of support, and it really is heartwarming to see that.”
That groundswell of support has swept up chefs and owners of fine-dining establishments and local eateries who have united in their effort to feed those taking incredible risks to care for others.
In the first days of the pandemic’s sweep into Connecticut, Dorjan Puka, founder and CEO of West Hartford’s DORO Restaurant Group, made a bunch of sandwiches for local health care workers and dropped them off at hospitals. As the situation worsened, DORO Donates, the philanthropic wing of the group, focused its funding on providing meals for those on the front lines.
After consulting with other restaurant owners in the area, DORO, which includes restaurants Treva, Àvert, ABC Artisanal Burger Company and Zohara, determined that the workers at St. Francis and Hartford hospitals were in the most need. And due to generous donors, the original idea of sandwiches or pasta became fresh seafood, organic chicken, pasture-raised beef and seasonal vegetables. As of mid-April they had served 7,000 meals, averaging about 2,000 per week.
The high-quality, chef-driven meals will continue as long as there is financial support, but DORO is in this for the long haul no matter what. “We might go back to that plain pasta and red sauce or salad, but we’re gonna do it,” COO and partner Scott Miller says. “We’re not thinking days out, we’re not thinking weeks out. We know that this is a major thing and we’re prepared to do these meals for the hospitals for months. Hopefully we don’t get to years.”
Miller’s daily motivation used to be seeing his restaurant customers content and happy after a great meal. “Now with this going on, I wake up every morning for something different,” Miller says. “I wake up to hear ‘thank you’ and ‘you guys are really making a difference.’ When I hear something like that … No matter what, we have to keep on doing this.”
In Bethel, Taproot co-owner Jeff Taibe was inspired to start a crowdfunding campaign to feed front-line workers and people in need after seeing Straight’s efforts in Westport (his brother owned the first restaurant she ordered from) and a post from Aki Arai, owner of House of Yoshida, in which the Bethel restaurant owner offered meals for free to those in need. Taibe has partnered with Arai and the owners of other town restaurants such as La Zingara, Ecco, Broken Symmetry Gastro Brewery, Molten Java and Spice Indian Cuisine. The Bethel restaurants have raised more than $23,000 and are delivering hundreds of meals each week.
With two locations in Greenwich, the owners of the popular eatery Chicken Joe’s are known for donating to meals to vulnerable community members. So it was no surprise when Joe Kaliko and Joe Marini stepped up for front-line workers at area hospitals and police departments. They’ve donated thousands of prepackaged meals to workers at Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk, Bridgeport and Danbury hospitals, and St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, as well as to Greenwich and Bridgeport police officers. It started with a sizable donation of funds by a local family, Mary Helen and Rob Morris. The restaurants are asking customers to chip in, with $8 providing a meal to a front-line worker.
Many restaurants, such as Gaudí Tapas and Wine in Danbury, have stopped operating other than to deliver these meals.
While the publicity these efforts entail might help restaurants, Tavares, from the CRA, says those in the industry have been motivated by something far deeper. “The driving force behind these acts is truly to help others with a greater need than one’s own. Restaurant operators, chefs and restaurant staff take great pride in knowing the food they have prepared with their own hands brings nourishment, warmth and happiness to those they feed.”