The idea to help came to David Peterson when he thought of his own mother, 92 and living alone. His family had agreed not to visit her until the threat of the coronavirus passes.
“She’s one of those people that’s isolated,” he realized. “Even people with family and friends, doesn’t necessarily mean they have access to meals.”
So Peterson, director of community development for Vivo Kitchen in Apple Valley, came up with a way to get food to at-risk seniors like his mother. His restaurant is partnering with a local church to deliver hot meals right to their doors, and he coordinated with other restaurants south of the Minnesota River to do the same.
“We thought it would be an easy way for us to make a difference, in a really extraordinary set of circumstances,” he said.
The virus sent Minnesota’s restaurants reeling, even before Gov. Tim Walz ordered a 10-day closure starting Tuesday evening. With the latest blow, thousands of cooks, servers and front-of-house staff were unemployed in an instant, while kitchen larders remained full. Still, while their industry was crumbling around them, many restaurant leaders and workers swiftly got creative about how they could help others. Using their food stores and their cooking talents, they are making lunches for schoolchildren, delivering food to older adults, and providing relief to Minnesota’s hungry.
The impulse to give to others despite one’s own troubles, they say, is in a restaurant worker’s DNA.
“Restaurants are known for giving,” said Mike Willenbring, the chef and owner of Manger restaurant in Bayport. “You’re not going to be in the service industry unless you want to provide service to others.”
Earlier this week, Willenbring hung a banner on Highway 95, advertising free boxed lunches for kids. He filled two coolers with about 50 sandwiches, fruit and juice boxes, and he adds more as needed.
For now, he’s footing the bill, but he’s hoping to he can continue the offering as long as necessary, with the help of donations.
“It’s in our hearts to do what we can do, until we can’t,” Hunn said.
Unideli, the restaurant inside United Noodles grocery store in Minneapolis, is offering free ramen to-go as a form of stress relief to anyone who needs comfort food.
“People are freaking out,” said Vina Chalice a spokeswoman for United Noodles. “Their lifestyles have changed, and this was all very sudden. We just want to help the community.”
A recent increase in grocery sales, from people stocking up, is helping support the restaurant’s effort. “We’ll continue serving until we run out of broth,” Chalice said.
Food and beverage businesses are helping in any way they can.
Minnesota distilleries are turning their alcohol into much-needed hand sanitizer. Norseman Distillery, in Minneapolis, is donating its product to nursing facilities, homeless shelters and first responders.
Finnegans, the Minneapolis nonprofit brewery, is giving $18,000 to local food shelves.
Since Tuesday, Modern Times Cafe has been setting up tables with free coffee, chai or bowls of kimchi in front of its lime green, Art Deco storefront in south Minneapolis. That’s not all. Chef/owner Dylan Alverson is offering whatever is still in stock to anyone who needs it, including his 19 employees, who are now jobless.
“We are a small cafe and we don’t really have enough to put a dent in any of the major shelters,” Alverson said. “It seems more effective to help people on a small scale right now — the community, the customers, the staff, the people in need in the neighborhood.”
Some restaurateurs are giving their kitchens new purposes while their original intents get put on hold.
When Brian Ingram, chef and owner of St. Paul’s Hope Breakfast Bar, posted last weekend on social media that the all-day pancakes-and-eggs joint would offer free meals for those who needed them, he never expected the number to reach into the thousands. By Monday — before the announcement from Walz — Ingram decided to forgo usual restaurant operations and transition into a community kitchen, instead. All meals are handed off curbside.
Why take on an endeavor of that scale while the future of his business is in crisis? “I think it’s just a sense of family that restaurant people have,” Ingram said. “The stuff that drives people to go out and drink together also drives you to come together as a community and help each other.”
The kitchen at chef Jonathan Gans’s award-winning Bachelor Farmer may now be closed, but Gans is still making sure people are fed.
In partnership with Second Harvest Heartland, the region’s food shelf supplier, Gans is rallying other local chefs to turn extra and donated food into hot meals for hunger relief. Dubbed Minnesota’s Central Kitchen, the project is inspired by chef and humanitarian José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen.
“We’re all in the same boat,” said Gans. “It’s just a crazy scenario where there’s going to be a food crisis and literally thousands of food professionals are ready and willing to cook.”
Chowgirls Killer Catering’s 2,000-square-foot kitchen will serve as the hub where now out-of-work cooks can make the meals. Loaves and Fishes is getting those meals to the people who need them.
Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, was moved by the outpouring of help from the restaurant community. “These are chefs who have poured their hearts and souls into their restaurants and their teams,” she said. “The circumstances might cause some people to stop in their tracks and be paralyzed, and I’ll tell you, we’ve had the opposite.”
For now, the cooking is all done on a volunteer basis, though Gans hopes that through donations (at 2harvest.org), the cooks can eventually be paid.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “All these people just lost their jobs, and all they care about is going to make food for other people.”