Nancy Carretta and her two sons had spent part of Monday morning picking up trash at Folger Park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, and now she was holding her exhausted 3-year-old, Joseph, on her hip while swiping a credit card at the counter at nearby We the Pizza. She had heard about a promotion offered by Sunnyside Restaurant Group, the family-run company led by celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, to feed kids free at their establishments, including We the Pizza, while schools are closed during the coronavirus outbreak.

A construction manager by profession, Carretta felt a little guilty about taking advantage of the free slices for her boys, but at the same time, the deal offered a secondary benefit to a family that now has to juggle working, parenting and preserving their sanity in a home where they must all share the same space, for who knows how long. Carretta took the kids out for errands and food so her husband could work.

“I’m trying to keep them busy so he can get his project done, so that tomorrow I can go into work for the day,” Carretta said, as her older son, Frank, 9, almost willed his pizza to arrive. “A 3-year-old definitely doesn’t help working from home or hosting meetings.”

Restaurants around the country are living up to their hospitality tag — providing free food for kids, seniors and hospital staffers, offering a place to stir-crazy parents to chill or just staying and providing paychecks to employees — despite suffering the effects of the pandemic themselves. Since the coronavirus outbreak, restaurants across the country have closed, been forced to shut down or watched their sales plummet. Micheline Mendelsohn, deputy chief executive for Sunnyside, said sales have dropped by 50 percent in the past two weeks.

As the coronavirus lockdown brings the economy to halt, some in the DC area restaurant industry are offering free meals and supplies to those in need. (The Washington Post)

Still, when she got the idea last week to offer free lunches to children who needed them, it didn’t take long to get her parents and brother, with whom she owns three of the group’s restaurants, and their franchisees on board. At first she had hoped to limit the offer to kids who got free and reduced-price lunches at school, but she soon realized it wouldn’t be possible to determine who was eligible.

In their haste to make the offer, she says, they circulated some materials saying the lunches were limited to kids with a paying adult and that there was a two-kid limit per family. But she says the meals don’t come with any such conditions. “The bottom line is that if you come in and you’re hungry, we’re going to feed you,” she says.

We the Pizza, along with sister operations Good Stuff Eatery and Santa Rosa Taqueria, are among many restaurants around the country stepping up to feed children, who often rely on the public school system for their daily nutrition and meals. Several establishments in the Asheville, N.C., community are offering tacos, bag lunches and biscuits to school-age kids. Restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and Arkansas are reportedly doing much the same. Little Sesame, a small chain of hummus shops in Washington, is going one step further: In partnership with the nonprofit organization Dreaming Out Loud, the Little Sesame team will deliver meals to residents of the most vulnerable D.C. communities. Its Meals for the City launched Monday at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7.

“We’re adapting to this new reality every day. Two things have become really clear: We want to take care of our team and serve the community most in need,” said Little Sesame co-founder Nick Wiseman in a statement to The Washington Post. “We quickly launched Meals for the City to do both. Using our kitchen spaces to produce food for underserved neighborhoods, while relying on the goodwill of our fans to help us get it done. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it seems to be working.”

Mendelsohn at Sunnyside says the role of social media as her company undertakes this effort has been mixed. Social media has led to donations, including from supplier U.S. Foods, which is making sure each entree comes with a piece of fresh fruit. But others have accused her, she said, of doing this solely for publicity. “Social media, it’s a double-edge sword,” she says. “My mother always says that you have to look at your business and look at your principles and do what’s right. This was the right move, and we’ll do it until we can’t or we aren’t allowed to.” 

Brendan Sullivan, 41, a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Coast Guard who stopped at Good Stuff Eatery for burgers with his two young daughters — Anna, 8, and Mary, 4 — had nothing but praise for the effort. “It’s great,” he said. “It’s such a hard time for restaurants and businesses generally.”

For Mark Bucher, who owns local steak frites mini-chain Medium Rare, the offer to help was a bit impulsive. He was scrolling through Twitter on Thursday and noticed the gloom-and-doom tone. “The glass was half empty, according to anyone who had an opinion,” he said in an interview. “And I thought, maybe there can be some good here, maybe people can come together.” 

Without really thinking through the logistics and without consulting with anyone, he typed out a tweet: Anyone over 70 who was holed up at home, whether because of a quarantine or simply because they were heeding the advice of public health experts to avoid crowds, could get a free meal delivered from one of the restaurant’s three locations. “I thought, ‘I’ve got food and I’ve got people,’ so I just put out a tweet not knowing how it was going to go,” Bucher says. 

He cobbled together a fleet of volunteer drivers: Some are college students whose campuses have shut down, others are professionals whose commute takes them by a Medium Rare location. On Friday, they delivered 60 meals. He estimated that on Monday night, they would send out about 180. Each afternoon, he gathers all the requests from social media and email and divvies up the orders among his locations and drivers. Orders go out at 5 p.m.

Later in the evening, a different kind of message starts rolling in: grateful seniors or their children and caregivers, writing in tweets and emails and Facebook messages about what the meal meant to them. Photos of smiling faces.

Bucher says he figures that donations, including from the National Football League Players Association, have covered about a third of the cost. But then again, he says, he’s not actually tallying up how much this is eating into his business. He’s been lucky, he says. So far, his restaurants have stayed relatively busy, although the Maryland and D.C. locations will switch to takeout only now that dine-in service is suspended. “I think if we knew, we’d be scared,” he says. “But I feel an obligation to do it.” 

In the Washington area, Po’ Boy Jim, Rasa and Bayou Bakery are also offering free meals to kids. The chain &pizza is offering free pizza to hospital workers.

In Boston, Pamela Carthy, owner of Penguin Pizza, was moved to action by a customer’s order. On Friday night, a call came in: He wanted 10 pizzas delivered to the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, just down the street. He paid by credit card and wanted the delivery to be anonymous. Carthy delivered the pies herself, and said she was struck by how grateful the nurses were.

She posted about the encounter on Facebook, thinking people would enjoy the story. They did — and more calls kept coming. One person wanted to send a pizza to an older neighbor they knew was shut in. A woman whose daughter had heart surgery years ago ordered pizzas sent to the hospital that treated her.

Even without a customer to foot the bill, Carthy has started delivering pizzas herself. On Monday, she had just dropped off five to a local firehouse and five to the police department. She knows the elderly people who live near the pizzeria and leaves food for them outside their doors. She takes a few pizzas home for neighbors.

Her friend came up with a website, feedingthefrontline.com, to urge other restaurants and people who want to help to follow suit. Carthy, who moved to Boston from Ireland in 2002, isn’t surprised by the outpouring.  “It all comes down to being Boston strong,” she says, using a phrase the city rallied around after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

She says her business is down, reliant on delivery and takeout. “But there’s always someone who has it worse than you,” she says. “Because of that, I’ll pay it forward. We can feel sorry for ourselves, but what good is that?”  

On Monday afternoon, Washington became the latest jurisdiction to shut down restaurants for dine-in customers, limiting operations to takeout and delivery only. The restrictions won’t stop the Sunnyside Restaurant Group, said Micheline Mendelsohn. It will continue the kids-eat-free promotion as takeout. Parents and kids “can come pick up or we can do curbside,” she said.

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