Chefs and Restaurants
How Rethink Food Pays Restaurants to Convert into Community Kitchens
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Just a few weeks ago, it was business as usual for New York City-based nonprofit Rethink Food NYC Inc., which recovers excess food from restaurant and corporate kitchens to provide low or no-cost meals to some 10,000 food-insecure New Yorkers each week. The organization was gearing up to take its model national—eyeing expansions to Seattle and Chicago.
Then the novel coronavirus hit, and need surged exponentially in Rethink’s own backyard, essentially overnight. Beyond the 1.4 million New York City residents already facing hunger, thousands of newly laid-off or furloughed residents—many of them hospitality workers—now wondered whether they’d be able to afford rent and utilities, let alone buy groceries. Rethink received more than 19,000 pounds of food from first-time restaurant donors forced to shutter but laden with perishables, while simultaneously many in the nonprofit’s vast network of soup kitchens, shelters and community centers shuttered due to the virus's impact on operations.
So, like many besieged by the pandemic, Rethink adapted—broadening its model throughout five boroughs via a network of restaurants that it will convert into temporary food distribution centers
Through mid-April, the organization will select up to 30 independent restaurants and provide them with stipends of up to $40,000 to stay open for the next eight to 10 weeks as distribution arms of Rethink. The money covers rent and keeps the majority of workers employed cooking a minimum goal of 500 meals per day to feed food-insecure residents. Once they deplete existing inventories, Rethink works with restaurants to secure ingredient donations that square with their pared-down menu offerings.
The campaign essentially blows out the modern soup kitchen model Rethink is testing with its Rethink Cafes, a series of upmarket storefronts offering to-go meals and staple groceries like dairy, eggs, bread and produce for suggested donations of $3 and $5, respectively. The nonprofit planned to debut the first cafe in Clinton Hill later this year but fast-tracked the opening to March 16 to meet surging need.
“A lot of New Yorkers don't use soup kitchens from a pride and dignity standpoint, so we created Rethink Cafe to be a place to get an amazing meal regardless of your socioeconomic status,” says Rethink’s executive director Meg Savage. “If you can afford more, you’re feeding yourself and the community through your donation.”
More than 50 restaurants have applied for the Restaurant Response Program so far. Rethink is considering only independent eateries for the program, and is also being selective based on location—maintaining an active map of where soup kitchens, commissaries and community homes have shut down and created holes in access, such as Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“This is for the smaller mom-and-pop-owned restaurants that aren’t necessarily under the umbrella of a hospitality group and getting help from them,” Savage notes. “We don’t want them to reinvent the wheel, either. We want to stick with what they're good at.”
The first grantee—Little Tong Noodle Shop, which slings Yunnan-inspired small plates and noodles from three locations, joined last Wednesday. Chef/Partner Simone Tong and General Manager/Partner Emmeline Zhao reconfigured the mini-chain’s East Village outpost and built the necessary systems before the team began sanitizing and prepping on Thursday through the weekend. Little Tong went live with carryout and delivery on Monday, which runs through Saturday from noon to 6 pm.
“We see this as an opportunity to give back, but, most importantly, see this as a way for our restaurants to support some of our cooks so they could have some savings or pay rent or pay for their food,” Tong says. “And for those who still want to work if they feel safe and healthy, it’s a chance to cook simple meals of good sustenance.”
The eatery has been able to keep on about half its employees—who are charged mainly with prepping, cooking and packaging two meal options: dandan-style spiced pork with pickled cabbage and mixian rice noodles and a vegan version featuring five-spice tofu and butternut squash. A server is stationed in the dining room to explain menu offerings, take optional payments and help facilitate pickups and deliveries.
Over the first two days, Little Tong produced more than 250 meals, with about 160 going out to hospitals and community and healthcare centers through Rethink. The pop-up runs more or less like business as usual—with added care to maintain safe distances and sanitize often—workers change their gloves every 15 minutes, washing their hands each time. On a deeper level, Tong observes a measure of sobriety in the work, as employees absorb the gravity of feeding the community while trying to limit the spread of the virus. One walked an hour and a half to work on Monday because he didn’t feel comfortable taking the subway.
“They are preparing meals with a sense of seriousness,” she says. “They are optimistic, but very careful—cleaning is equally important to cooking. So I think getting up to 500 meals a day is not physically that difficult, it’s difficult mentally.”
Tong plans to rotate out workers, depending on their financial need, physical and mental health and comfort level. She’s checking in with staff daily—with the added wrinkle of being confined to isolation herself over the past five days because she’s pregnant.
“As a chef, I want to be there—it does make me feel sort of powerless,” she says. “But we didn’t know this would happen. Of course we worry if the restaurant will still happen after all this. We wonder how long this will take. But I’m in the mindset of making sure everybody we know is healthy first, and worrying about the things in front of us one day, one week at a time. At least we have a schedule of what we can achieve today.”
Tong’s response reflects a grit among those in the restaurant industry that has heartened Savage over the past few weeks, as the organization tackles a seemingly insurmountable challenge one meal and neighborhood at a time.
“What I’m finding about the culinary industry is folks do want to help,” Savage says. “They want to feed their local communities. Working at the microlevel makes a huge macro impact. We’re riding that wave and seeing what comes of it.”
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago restaurant critic and freelance food and drink writer.