DULUTH – Jonathan Reznick was feeling good about the steady business he had this spring — galas to cater, wedding tastings to host, boxed lunches to supply corporate events.
But almost everything was canceled after the COVID-19 outbreak. Still, the owner of MidCoast Catering and the Rambler Food Truck stood in his kitchen making sandwiches (turkey and bacon on ciabatta) Tuesday morning.
With the service industry taking some of the hardest economic hits during the pandemic-propelled closures, a group of Duluthians are asking for donations to buy food from local businesses to deliver to health care workers on the front line of the COVID-19 response.
“It’s a win-win,” said Shaun Floerke, a Duluth judge who has gotten to know staff at the local hospitals through his work on opioid use disorders. After connecting with Reznick and Shannon Cornelius, who owns Yellow Bike Coffee in Hermantown, Floerke reached out to his contacts to ask if they’d accept free meals.
So, Reznick and Cornelius got to work. At MidCoast Catering, kitchen manager Kris Werbelow boxed up sandwiches with fruit, chips and a homemade cookie. He and some of Reznick’s other employees had to file for partial unemployment while business is slow, but they’ll get a few extra hours between the donated meals and the food truck, which is offering free lunches throughout town to those who can’t afford it.
It’s certainly not enough to compensate for the losses the virus is causing. Cornelius said Yellow Bike’s monthly revenue is down about 80%.
“I think there’s a lot of different ways people can support their community right now,” Reznick said. “This is the way we know how to. We know food.”
“Doctors and nurses and first responders, they can’t stay at their houses during this,” Cornelius added. “So we had to reinvent our business, in a way, to think: How can we meet the needs of all these people?”
Meeting those needs means taking extra safety precautions when prepping and delivering food. Reznick only lets three people in his kitchen at a time, and Cornelius was loaned a van to use especially for deliveries to lessen the risk of the virus spreading.
On Tuesday, the pair took their goods — boxed lunches from MidCoast Catering and coffee and scones from Yellow Bike — to BeeHive Home, an assisted-living and memory care facility in Duluth. Staff there, like others around the country, have taken extreme measures to protect the medically vulnerable population they care for. If the coronavirus were to sweep through the nursing home, the results could be devastating, as they were at a facility in Washington where almost 30 people died.
“It’s overwhelming, the support from the community,” said Becky Gregg, a registered nurse at BeeHive. “It shocked all of us.”
Throughout the coming weeks — and as long as they keep getting donations — Reznick and Cornelius plan to scatter deliveries to other groups, including Essentia Health and St. Luke’s, Duluth’s two major hospitals.
As the regional hub for health care, there’s a fear that should the outbreak get worse, Duluth’s system will be overwhelmed or used to help more overburdened parts of the state.
“Everyone else is sitting at home feeling helpless,” Floerke said. “Maybe this is a model for communities wondering how they can help those front-line workers out.”