Food & Drink

DC Hospitality Industry Galvanize to Support One Another and Community

“I got into the hospitality industry because I want to take care of people.”

This week, restaurants in DC were ordered to shut down to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. While they can still offer takeout or delivery, dining rooms will be idle and many have chosen to close up shop completely. This means an added burden on top of what were already paper-thin margins and challenging odds. Trying times are ahead for the restaurant industry -- everything from workers lacking a safety net to rent and expenses piling up with no capital coming in.
 
After resoundingcalls from the industry for swift assistance from the government, the DC government passed emergency legislation, providing grants and loans for small businesses, sales tax relief, prohibition of evictions, and resources for unemployed workers.

But even as they brace for certain financial losses and uncertain futures, chefs and owners are doubling down on their commitment to hospitality, lending a hand to those in need -- each other, their employees, and the community.
 
Anna Valero, owner of tavern and events venue Hook Hall in Park View, is leading a collective effort to help hospitality industry workers. When things started to go south, Valero and her team asked themselves, “What can we do? What are we hearing from the folks in the industry?” The answer was unanimous. “I was hearing from other business owners, ‘We need to help our crew but we don’t know how.’”
 
With 13,500 square feet of space now empty, Valero was in a unique situation. “We had the opportunity there, with the space being so large, to provide services and still provide social distancing.”

She launched Hook Hall Helps to offer supplies, meals, and educational programming to those out of work. “The antidote to fear is action, and doing something is better than nothing,” she says. “Hospitality’s been uniting behind it.”  The program offers care kits filled with essentials like non-perishable pantry essentials, toilet paper, and toiletries. Using the donated perishable food from restaurants that have had to close their kitchens, the team is making cooked meals available for pickup. “We’re calling it kitchen gleaning,” Valero says.  
 
The efforts are being bolstered by the Coronavirus Worker Relief Fund, set up in partnership with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) to collect donations for industry workers. As of Monday night, the fund had raised $22,000, which is being used for supplies and meals for the time being. Valero says she and the team are continually assessing the situation and will shift the focus of the funds as needs evolve.

"In DC, 96% of sit down restaurants are independently operated," RAMW president and CEO Kathy E. Hollinger said in a statement to Thrillist. "They are hit the hardest by what is happening, and we have seen a decrease in sales ranging from 30-60% for restaurants that have been able to keep their doors open. It is critical for us to not only look at what is happening today, but also think about the future of our industry and what relief and stimulus are necessary for the restaurants and workers to weather this storm."
 
While Hook Hall Helps encompasses a number of industry businesses and partners, but there are many others spearheading efforts of their own, targeting the industry and the community at large. Most notably, humanitarian and industry leader José Andrés has converted the majority of his restaurants in DC and New York to community kitchens offering affordable plates of the day available for takeout via the restaurants’ side doors. Hours of operation are 12-5pm daily.
 
“We are in a serious global emergency and people need to take every precaution, including staying home as much as possible,” Andrés said in a statement. “However, we also want to help provide food for those who want it in a safe manner, so we feel these community kitchens can help during this challenging time. And those who cannot afford to pay we will welcome as well.”

Inspired by Andrés and World Central Kitchen, chef Erik Bruner-Yang started The Power of 10 to help mobilize restaurant workers while also helping to alleviate the food-insecure in the DC area. The hope is that, by raising $10,000 per week in donations, the organization can provide 10 full-time jobs to restaurant workers and 1,000 free meals to the community. The program is being piloted in three DC restaurants Cane, ABC Pony, and Maketto -- with the hope to scale it over time.

"Every neighborhood has a restaurant that is an extension of your home," Bruner-Yang said in a statement. "These neighborhood restaurants are independently owned, usually operate with a team of less than 30 staff, and unfortunately lack the resources to face challenges like a rapidly expanding pandemic."

Also providing for the community is local nonprofit Real Foods for Kids, which has partnered with Bayou Bakery owner and chef David Guas to offer plant-based meals for kids and families in Arlington County during the school closure. Donations have kickstarted the program and Guas is seeking additional donors. Meals are available between 10am-noon at the restaurant. Updates are being posted via Facebook. Bayou Bakery is still open for curbside pickup and delivery orders via Uber Eats.

In addition, famed chef Edward Lee is partnering with Knead Hospitality + Design and Maker's Mark to transform Succotash restaurant in Penn Quarter into a relief center for any restaurant worker who has been laid off or experienced a significant reduction in hours. Starting Wednesday, March 18, between 5-8pm, workers can visit the restaurant for a free to-go dinner, fresh produce, and supplies.
 
As they stay open for takeout and delivery, many restaurants, including RASA, We The Pizza, Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria, and Punjab Grill have been offering free meals to people in need. RASA is serving school children, hospital workers, and their staff for free. Kids eat free at Sunnyside Restaurant Group locations during the school closures. Punjab Grill is serving packaged meals on Saturdays at Franklin Square. Though they’ve shut down their operations, Little Sesame is working with nonprofit partner Dreaming Out Loud to drop meals to vulnerable communities.
 
Adam Greenberg of Coconut Club is still open for weekend takeout and delivery via its website, and during this time he is supporting his staff and other industry workers in the process of applying for unemployment. He’s setting up appointments at Coconut Club to walk people through the process with provided laptops and iPads. He says interested individuals can email him with questions or to set up an appointment at agreenberg@hellococonutclub.com.
 
Greenberg says he’ll have to take out loans to make it through the coronavirus shutdown, but he’s trying to stay positive. “I got into the hospitality industry because I want to take care of people,” he says.

Similarly, Hook Hall Helps is also assisting workers with logistical processes like applying for unemployment. The group is also planning to offer virtual education in the form of professional development, physical activity, and self-care classes. In addition the group, in partnership with local charter school E.L. Haynes, is providing meals and kits to affected families, as well as support to elderly neighborhoods.
 
For those who want to help, the program is seeking toiletries donations, doorstep delivery volunteers, and funds. As Valero explains: “The more folks -- especially those who are able to telework -- are able to consider making a dollar donation, that’s going to go the longest way in allowing us to really sustain efforts.”

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Lani Furbank is a DC-based freelance food writer. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.