The one thing Justin Sutherland can’t do right now is his job.

“All we’ve done, all our lives, is feed people,” the chef said Thursday, standing in one of his shuttered restaurants, surrounded by loaves of bread, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables, pyramids of eggs and dairy; ingredients for meals he can no longer serve.

Sutherland’s nine restaurants have closed their doors or scaled back to delivery-only. Three hundred of his employees lost their jobs last week, as public life in Minnesota shut down to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

Since he couldn’t do his job, he did what he could.

“I’d rather see this food in someone’s belly than rotting on a shelf,” said Sutherland, who emptied his restaurant coolers and offered it up to anyone who needed it. Other restaurants, chefs and venues chipped in, filling truck after truck. The Timberwolves donated food that wouldn’t be eaten at games that wouldn’t be played.

“We in the restaurant business, there are two things we do well. Hug and cook,” said chef David Fhima, offering an elbow bump.

Sutherland returned the bump. “And now we can’t do either of those things,” he agreed.

What they could do was bring their unused food to Public Kitchen, Sutherland’s restaurant in Lowertown St. Paul, and set it up like a free farmers market, allowing people inside, 10 at a time, to take as much as they liked. People lined up in the icy rain Thursday: a newly unemployed shop clerk, a mother of six, a man who had been sleeping in the park across the street.

The only good things in this week of loss, loneliness and dread were the people who helped each other through.

“This is about community. This is about looking out for someone else,” said Majestic Lasky, a 21-year-old college student and record clerk at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.

When the storied record store closed its doors last week and laid off most of its staff, Lasky set up a GoFundMe — the Friends of the Fetus COVID-19 Relief Fund — to help her co-workers cover rent and other expenses.

Loyal customers are helping businesses by ordering online or buying gift cards as a gesture of faith that when life returns to normal, their favorite shops, salons and restaurants will return too.

“I really think once we come of out this — which we will — we’ll be able to look back and tell some really, really good stories,” said chef Fhima, who emptied his Minneapolis restaurant, Fhima’s, to feed the people of St. Paul. “We’ll be even stronger.”

Human contact and comfort was Nell Rueckl’s job.

The only way to keep her clients safe was not to do her job.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota rose last week, Rueckl, founder of Spot Spa Urban Wellness, closed up shop, doing her part to stop the spread of COVID-19. Spot Spa locations in Uptown and northeast Minneapolis closed their doors, 43 employees lost their jobs, and Rueckl lost 90% of her income and the work she loved.

“We heal people. We help people,” said Rueckl, who spent Friday personally delivering the orders people placed for products from her shop. Her antimicrobial shea butter hand cream is soothing hands scrubbed raw in the past few days. “This is how we identify; this is what we do, this is how we interact with the world and we can no longer do that. It’s pretty profound.”

If her business stays closed, she can cover the rent for another two and a half months, but that’s it. The gift cards her customers buy have helped — not just the extra money, but the gesture of faith that she and her staff will be back, doing what they love, when all this is over.

“I never thought massage was going to be affected by a crisis. I always thought we would be here to heal people,” Rueckl said. “I never thought touch would be affected.”

Thousands of Minnesotans lost their jobs to the pandemic this week.

Others are working in fear.

At Caribou Coffee in Edina, assistant manager Anne Woster agonized over the hours she was cutting from employees, knowing what the smaller paychecks would mean to people living on a barista’s salary.

Woster, who supplements her income as a freelance photographer, has a compromised immune system and worries about the risks that come with staying on the job. Particularly from those who hand over cash instead of minimizing contact by paying with a credit card.

“We need to know that you see us,” said Woster, who has cut her own hours as much as she can without losing her health coverage. “We need you to know that we’re terrified.”

Stay home if you can this week. Buy a gift certificate or order takeout if you’re able. Pay with credit cards, not cash. Be nice to the exhausted grocery store clerks.

Let your neighbors know you see them. They’re just as scared as you.

 

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks