In March, Sonoma County restaurateurs Kyle and Katina Connaughton realized they had to stop normal operations at Single Thread due to the growing COVID-19 crisis. But they weren’t about to shut down completely—it was just time to do a different kind of work.
“We knew we were going to be able to have safe operations here and we have a lot of products from the restaurant and neighboring farms,” says Kyle, who launched the Healdsburg restaurant, farm, and inn with his wife in 2016. “And we knew there was going to be a real growing need for food.”
The Connaughtons connected with the charitable organization Sonoma Family Meals, which had launched in 2017 to provide meals to victims of wildfires. They quickly put a new system into action, fueled by donations from wineries, investors, and locals. “We produce meals, and it keeps our people working,” Kyle says, but it also keeps the whole supply chain moving. “We get food from the farms and the local producers and we’re able to have meals that can be easily distributed to the community.”
That has translated into 200 meals per day distributed to locals in need—including seniors, women’s shelter residents, and out-of-work restaurant and agricultural workers. The goodwill spirit is catching on: Many other restaurants are now participating with Sonoma Family Meals, multiplying the number of donation-fueled meals that can go out each day.
The entire U.S. restaurant industry is suffering, as owners are forced to close or drastically reduce operations and either furlough or lay off workers. More than 400,000 restaurant jobs were lost across the U.S. in March 2020—the industry’s largest one-month employment decline, according to the National Restaurant Association. To help support those workers until more normal operations can resume, multiple organizations are stepping in to help.
The California Restaurant Association (CRA) has launched Restaurants Care, which is offering grants for qualifying restaurant workers who are either out of work due to the shutdown, or coping with COVID-19 in their own families (donate here). Chef Tyler Florence is boosting the initiative by offering curbside service around San Francisco with his Wayfare Tavern fried chicken truck. The CRA’s affiliated site, DineOutCA, is also posting lists of restaurants in California towns that are still operating on a delivery, take-out, or curbside-pickup basis.
Plenty of chefs, restaurants, and farms are launching their own efforts. Under the leadership of celebrity chef José Andres, World Central Kitchen is expanding its meals-in-disaster-area program to a variety of American cities—now including Los Angeles, thanks in part to a $1 million donation from Phil Rosenthal, host of the Netflix travel series Somebody Feed Phil. “This is a hard time, but we are one big family and we will get through this,” Andres recently posted on Instagram. “We can change the world through the power of food.”
Also in Los Angeles, heavy-hitter restaurants such as Sqirl have pitched in to provide daily dinners to restaurant workers as part of the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which adds in key supplies such as baby food, diapers, canned foods, and toilet paper.
Meanwhile, restaurants that have had to close temporarily are helping out just by distributing their own stockpiles of supplies. Cafe Sevilla Spanish Restaurant and Tapas Bar, which has locations in Costa Mesa, San Diego, and Long Beach, has donated over 2,000 pounds of food to local food pantries and homeless shelters. In Tuolumne County, some restaurants that had to close—such as The Service Station, and The Standard Pour—have donated their food to local food banks and charity organizations. In Napa Valley, winery Heitz Cellar has joined forces with local charitable organizations to donate 500 pounds of Angus beef from their biodynamic farm to families in need.
One challenge for any restaurant still feeding folks during the COVID-19 crisis is adapting its safety and sanitation routines. Single Thread tweaked its protocols so that no one from the streamlined staff interfaces with anyone outside the cooking crew. “No one is allowed in the building, and we pack up all donation meals, put them outside, and they get loaded in the back of their vehicles, and drive off,” says Katina. “The staff working day to day is even observing quarantine together. But if we have to endure a crisis, these are the people I want to be with. This has brought us even closer together.”
Even though they are only operating with 25 percent of their usual team, Kyle says, “we’re able to pay everyone (with benefits) and distribute tips to members of staff who aren’t working. It gives us all a lot of purpose and pride.”
Some chefs and restaurants, meanwhile, are focusing their efforts on frontline workers. San Diego’s Fuel the Frontline and Farmer’s Table restaurant have started giving meals to hospital workers treating COVID patients, while in San Luis Obispo, SLO Brew Rock provides free meals (with an option of craft brews, too) to grocery store workers, prepared by the brewpub’s chefs.
Joachim Splichal and Gregg Wiele of Patina Restaurant Group are working with their team to feed Southern California's front line heroes on an ongoing basis, ensuring they are all well-nourished during their tireless fight against COVID-19. Chef Joachim’s Patina Cares Program prepped, delivered, and served over 3,000 meals in one week, working with three local hospitals and The Hollywood Food Coalition.
Indeed, that sense of community is central to the whole operation. “This is a passion, not just a job or paycheck,” says Kyle. “We’re all wearing a lot of different hats right now, and we know what’s at stake here. For chefs, farmers, people in hospitality, the need to nurture and take care of others runs very strong. It just propels us forward.”