Harlem Hospital workers get a delivery from Eat Gai Zen. (Photos courtesy of Feed Your Hospital)

When New York’s restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms on March 16, many decided to keep their lights on by switching to a charity model. Over the last six weeks, dozens of restaurants have launched fundraising campaigns with the mission of feeding frontline workers while keeping their employees on payroll. The headlines are heartwarming, but how are these endeavors actually working out?

When the closing order first went into effect, Tarallucci e Vino’s owner Luca Di Pietro had to lay off 90 of his employees across its five locations in Manhattan. A family friend offered to help out by buying 40 meals, and on March 19 the restaurant was able to make its first delivery to NYU Langone Hospital. From there, the Di Pietro family began to grow and expand its fundraising campaign, Feed the Frontlines NYC, and now partnered with 17 other restaurants in the city, including Donovan’s Pub, Katz’s Delicatessen and Mesa Coyoacan. The campaign has collected more than $1.3 million to date.

“Our mission is sort of a two-pronged mission,” said Isabella Di Pietro, a Harvard senior who is now helping her family full-time with the fundraising campaign. “We want to be able to feed health care workers really high-quality, restaurant-grade meals, meals that are not only going to nourish them on a basic level, but also give them a morale boost.” At the same time, the campaign is meant to help restaurants survive. The cost per meal factors in every aspect of operation, from payroll, supplies, delivery, to other expenses associated with running a restaurant, such as utilities, sales tax and rent. 

After initially budgeting $25 per meal, they have now reduced it to $18 since they’ve partnered with a fiscal sponsor that wants to maximize the number of meals. “We’re doing $18 a meal all inclusive and we think that’s more sustainable than other [organizations] who are paying less per meal,” said Di Pietro. “It’s basically giving restaurants the ability to keep the lights on, even if they’re working in reduced capacity,” she continued. Altogether, the 18 restaurants have brought 99 people back to work (including 35 at Tarallucci e Vino) and served 60,000 meals at 42 hospitals.

A delivery from Zen Yai.

This partnership model, which allows multiple restaurants to share one central fundraising platform, has also proven effective in the case of Feed Your Hospital, an initiative that specifically targets Asian restaurants in New York City and an increasing number of other metropolitan areas like Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles. “One thing we’ve noticed especially with Asian restaurant owners is that a lot of them are still mom-and-pop shops,” said co-founder Tina Xiao. She explained that these restaurants might not have been able to modernize in time to adapt to the contactless business under coronavirus—they may not have websites, run any social media channels or be on delivery apps. 

That’s where Feed Your Hospital comes in. They help restaurants navigate the business without dine-in customers, and create specific menu items suitable for delivery and hospital use. Typically, these are $10 meals consisting of a non-handheld protein, starch, and vegetable; the items are individually wrapped per hospital requirements, Xiao said.

Starting with an initial goal of $5,000 for 250 meals, Feed Your Hospital has raised over $40,000 nationwide and delivered over 3,300 meals as of last week. The other co-founders, Lena Wu and Ben Xue, said they had strategically built sustainability into their fundraising model from the beginning. While one-off orders do make a difference, what these restaurants are looking for is a predictable food traffic pattern that they can work with each week. “From a fundraising point of view, it’s important for us to see, can we continue this sort of revenue stream? Can we continue raising money? Can we continue tapping into New York where people feel like they could be giving more?” said Xue. 

Using some predictive analytics, Feed Your Hospital’s organizers try to allocate funds gradually without scaling up too quickly. “We don’t really know when things are going to end,” said Wu of the precarious nature of the COVID-19 crisis. “If we actually just over-fundraise by a lot, we still expect that money can go back into business recovery for all of our respective communities.” Wu added that their flagship partner in the East Village, TabeTomo, was able to rehire 10 employees at pre-COVID compensation thanks to the volume that they’re now serving.

A delivery from TabeTomo at NYU Langone Orthopedic.

For restaurant owners who aren’t participating in any partnerships and are just fundraising on their own, it’s not easy to say how much longer they can keep providing free meals to hospital workers while surviving as a business.

Since April 5, a GoFundMe campaign launched by Sophie’s Cuban Cuisine has received more than $15,000, meaning nearly 1,500 meals have been donated to hospitals as well as several police precincts and fire stations. “Our sales went down to 20 percent or 30 percent of what we used to sell before […] then we decided that giving all to the frontline responders is a good way to keep people employed,” said owner Sofia Luna. She had to close three of seven Sophie’s locations around the city but was able to keep 75 percent of personnel at the open locations, while relocating some employees to work from the closed location on Sixth Avenue.

In addition to money from the GoFundMe, Luna is counting on the PPP loans, a type of forgivable loans for small businesses to pay their employees during COVID-19, to cover supplies and payroll, excluding other costs like rent, electricity or insurance policies. Right now, the restaurants have already exhausted all the funds coming from the campaign, yet Luna said she is determined to keep donating free meals to the frontline workers for as long as possible. “We’re just doing it out of our own pocket, but since we were built for large capacities, we’re able to mass produce food,” said Luna. Each of her restaurants was selling 1,000 meals a day pre-COVID-19. 

The SoHo, East Village and Murray Hill locations of Ruby’s Cafe have also been depending on their GoFundMe campaign to stay afloat. Co-owner Tim Sykes said the restaurants initially furloughed about 80 percent of their staff but have now hired back 30 percent, so they’re running around 50 percent of the usual operation. Even with over $82,000 raised, Sykes said the amount is barely keeping his business running. In keeping their goal of delivering a couple thousands meals each week to local hospitals, they have had to stretch their resources very thin. “It cost us $100 to deliver a $500 order the other day, so we go backwards very quickly,” he chuckled.

A meal at NYU Langone Orthopedic.

Restaurants aren’t the only stakeholders in the food industry trying to lend a hand during the coronavirus outbreak. Some caterers are also restructuring their business to offer as much help as they can during this pandemic.

The Migrant Kitchen, a social impact-driven catering company, has not only been able to keep all of their employees at work but has also hired more people to help deliver meals to healthcare workers. Co-founder Nasser Jaber said he and his business partner Daniel Dorado are particularly forward about hiring workers, especially immigrant workers who don’t have unemployment insurance. Yet, their fundraising campaign, which has brought in more than $106,000, only guarantees business continuity for the next few months. “This is only going to be a three-to-four-month thing,” said Jaber. “After COVID-19, we want to go back to our regular business which is corporate lunch catering and food services, and we would be doing it on such a large scale that we’ll keep everyone on staff.”

With many restaurants at risk of permanent closure post pandemic, the local nonprofit Heart to Harvest is launching the Restaurant Rescue Fund, an initiative designed to help restaurants in the New York metropolitan area reopen through a grant fund. The organization also aims to provide support with vendor and landlord negotiations, staffing and operational improvements after restaurants have reopened. Applications will be open for 14 days starting May 15. More information on how restaurants can apply can be found here.