As restaurateurs wait to see whether they qualify for small-business loans, as independent operators continue to lobby Congress to save their dying industry, as the White House convenes an economic council that includes several celebrity chefs, World Central Kitchen and its high-profile founder, José Andrés, have launched a pilot program that will feed vulnerable communities across the country while also helping hundreds of restaurants by reopening their kitchens.
Part of its Chefs for America relief operation, World Central Kitchen’s new program promises to pay the costs to prepare 1 million meals at more than 400 restaurants nationwide, which are among the hundreds of thousands of independent eateries that have been devastated by the coronavirus outbreak. According to a recent James Beard Foundation survey of more than 1,400 owners of mostly independent restaurants, operators have, on average, laid off 91 percent of their hourly workforce and nearly 70 percent of their salaried employees. These workers are, quite likely, among the 22 million people who have filed for unemployment insurance, representing a level of job loss not seen since the Great Depression.
WCK’s program hopes not only to provide jobs to some of the unemployed hospitality workers, but also to feed those people who have lost their paychecks or who are otherwise vulnerable during the pandemic. The Washington-based organization has hired workers in covid-19 hot spots, from New York City to New Orleans to the San Francisco Bay area, to identify communities in the greatest need of food: homeless people, low-income families, children without access to school meals, seniors who don’t feel safe venturing outside their front doors. WCK is also coordinating with delivery services, such as Uber Eats and Postmates, to bring hot meals to these communities.
“This is only a drop in the water,” Andrés said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. WCK hopes to expand to more restaurants in more cities across the country as funding becomes available.
With news that the Small Business Administration’s $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program is already tapped out, Nate Mook, chief executive of WCK, said the nearly $1 trillion independent restaurant industry cannot wait on an aid package that may never arrive for many owners and, even if it does, may not provide the necessary relief.
“The only thing that’s really going to save the system is the system going back to work,” Mook told The Post. “The restaurants going back to work. The staff going back, getting a paycheck. The restaurants buying from the suppliers that are also impacted by this. You got to get the whole machine going again because you can’t just have these Band-Aid solutions.”
WCK will pay restaurant owners an average of $10 per meal and guarantee to cover hundreds of meals a day for a fixed period. The restaurateurs will know exactly how much money to expect and can use the funds to rehire staff, order the ingredients and prepare the meals. WCK will handle all other logistics. By providing the restaurants business, Mook said, “they can operate as they normally would.”
One of the restaurants now essentially serving as a relief kitchen is Reem’s California, the acclaimed Middle Eastern bakery and cafe in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. Palestinian-Syrian chef and restaurateur Reem Assil said her kitchen is “serving anywhere from 200 to 500 meals a day, and growing, to vulnerable populations and first responders” in the neighborhood. She has had to modify her usual offerings to accommodate the lower price points offered by WCK. She said it was too early to tell whether the influx of business from the WCK partnership will help Reem’s California, whose sales dipped more than 80 percent since the coronavirus hit the Bay Area.
“It’ll probably bring us back up to more than 50 percent” of the restaurant’s pre-virus sales, she said.
Tom Colicchio, the activist-chef behind the Crafted Hospitality restaurant group and the head judge and executive producer of “Top Chef,” wasn’t sure that, at the current per-meal price, a partnership with WCK would do much to save his restaurants in a high-overhead market like New York City.
“Once you factor in rent and overhead and all that stuff, I don’t think it’s going to do it,” Colicchio said in an interview with The Post. “One thing that it does is it keeps the supply chain moving, which is good, because you’re buying food.”
“Where it’s helpful,” Colicchio added, “is feeding a lot of people. If it’s going to keep restaurants solvent, I don’t know.”
Neither Mook nor Andrés views the program as a panacea to the problems faced by the restaurant industry during the pandemic. They see it as a model that can be shown to government leaders who could decide to fund it or expand upon it with similar programs.
“Our hope is that we can show that this works and get the powers that be, in our state governments and our federal governments, to recognize that this is a solution,” Mook said. “We have people we need to feed. We have restaurants that we need to put back to work, and we’re showing that this is doable, that it’s scalable.”
The covid-19 outbreak has forced countless restaurants to pivot their business models or shut down entirely. It has forced World Central Kitchen to pivot, too. The organization, founded in 2010 after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, has learned how to safely feed people in a pandemic. WCK has fine-tuned its protocols in the weeks since the group started serving meals to the quarantined staff and passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan, Mook said. At its large-scale feeding operation at Nationals Park, all workers must pass a temperature check before reporting to their stations. They must also wear masks and gloves and practice social distancing.
“Obviously, this is not saving restaurants,” said Andrés about the new partnership. “But between doing nothing and having them closed and doing something and being part of the community, what side of the history do you want to be?”
“Right now, I am doing it. I don’t need the approval of anybody. I know it’s needed,” Andrés continued. “We’re doing it because if I had to wait for somebody to tell me that we need to do this, already there would be a lot of hungry people.”
Asked whether he might eventually join the WCK program, Colicchio said: “Right now, if I knew that 10 of my cooks had covid, had a mild case and now they are over it and they have antibodies, that the science says they’re not going to get reinfected, I would have them in tomorrow doing this.
“I actually had this conversation with my chefs yesterday, saying, ‘Start reaching out to people. See if anybody was sick,’ ” he added. “As we move along, maybe in the next couple of weeks, I may ask my staff if they’re willing. I’m not going to compel them to come in. Then we’ll see what happens.”
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