The Big Idea: Light at the End of a Dark Year
A year into the pandemic, the butcher’s bill for restaurants in the US was grim. In 2020 alone, an estimated $240 billion in revenue vanished, nearly 2.5 million restaurant workers lost their jobs and over 100,000 dining establishments closed temporarily or permanently. Perhaps the bleakest stat of all is that, according to a study by the University of California, San Francisco, the most dangerous jobs during the pandemic, outside of health care, have been in the food and agriculture industries, with the risk of dying increasing 39 percent.
Since March 2020, the only “hot new trend” in dining was finding a way to survive. By their nature as businesses built around gathering people in one place, restaurants were caught in an impossible position: City and state authorities had to shut them down to avert a public-health disaster, but then did little to ameliorate the resulting financial pain.
Yet there’s now rightful reason for optimism as vaccination rates climb and the government help restaurants pleaded for finally came through in the form of a $28.6 billion grant package called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, part of the American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress and signed by President Biden. And once it’s safe for indoor service to resume at full capacity, surely people will want to fill those tables as they cast off the shackles of pandemic lockdowns.
In a normal year, we’d use this space to tell you about the best new restaurants around—the kind so filled with creativity and conviviality that you’d gladly hop a plane to dine there if you managed to snag a reservation. But those openings were few and far between in the past year. Just as the industry had to pause, we’re also taking a moment to reflect. Instead of celebrating fine dining and inventive cuisine, we’re acknowledging the people and organizations that, when their industry faced its darkest days, remained beacons.
Some of our honorees are existing groups that pivoted in the face of crisis; others rose up organically to meet the moment. They brought advocacy as well as aid to catch those falling through the massive holes in our social safety net: fundraising to help unemployed restaurant workers, feeding hospital staff, providing free lunch to kids not in school and offering support to working mothers, a group disproportionately burdened by the pandemic. At a time when they would have been forgiven for turning inward and focusing on saving themselves, our honorees instead helped others. What’s even more encouraging is that there are signs their efforts will endure after the pandemic ends, as they push to make the world a better place while hopefully still creating the restaurants that will fill our “Best of ” list when it returns next year.
Bakers Against Racism, Washington, D.C.
As a wave of protests swept across the country in the wake of police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd, Washington, D.C., pastry chef Willa Pelini wanted to channel her emotions into something productive. She remembered how fellow pastry chef Paola Velez had recently made and sold donuts to raise money for Ayuda, an organization that provides aid to vulnerable immigrant communities. Could she do the same to support a racial-justice initiative? Pelini joined forces with Velez, and together they decided to rely on that classic school fundraiser: a bake sale—with a twist.
Taking advantage of both the speed of of social media and the stuck-at-homeness of countless bakers, they targeted a virtual community rather than a geographic one. Aided by chef Rob Rubba, they opened up the sale to anyone anywhere who wanted to participate, professionals and home bakers alike. The trio coordinated hubs where participants could pick up donated chocolate ingredients and provided advice on baking in large quantities. A project they thought would attract about 80 volunteer bakers drew thousands and raised $2.5 million for anti-racism groups of the bakers’ choosing, such as Common Good City Farm, which grows and distributes produce in D.C. Since that original sale, they organized Bake the Vote in November and other drives around the holiday season and throughout April to fund organizations fighting against Asian American Pacific Islander hate.
JJ Johnson, New York City
It was approaching 1:30 a.m. when chef JJ Johnson’s wife returned home from her nursing shift. She’d left at 5:30 a.m. to work on the front lines at a Manhattan hospital in the early days of the pandemic and now had a request for her husband: Her team was so busy they didn’t even have time to get food during their shift, so could he cook something for them for the next day? He obliged and went to his Harlem restaurant, Fieldtrip, which serves globally inspired grain bowls that show how cultures around the world are connected through rice, and prepared a meal for the grateful health-care workers.
That got him thinking. Johnson was sure other hospital staffs in his immediate community were facing the same predicament. He went to Twitter to see if any of his followers had a contact at Harlem Hospital. He then brought 40 bowls to the ER, and afterward some of his followers said they’d match his donation, paying him to make more meals for more frontline medical workers. Realizing he was onto something, he asked his business partner to help him erect an infrastructure that would enable him to take in donations, connect to hospitals in need of food, keep paying his employees and provide business to his suppliers, who were taking a hit because the restaurant industry had cratered. Out of his small storefront, he made 40,000 meals for frontline workers from March through June 2020.
Then his wife had another request: Stop. As more and more restaurants cooked for hospitals, they were inundated with food they couldn’t finish. So with their system in place, Johnson and his team pivoted to donating to churches, the Boys & Girls Club and more, producing an additional 60,000 meals during the first year of the pandemic. Even as he expands Fieldtrip, having opened locations in Long Island City and inside Rockefeller Center since late 2020, the charitable effort remains (in partnership with the nonprofit Rethink Food NYC), each day preparing 250 reheatable meals that go to people in need in Johnson’s community.
Southern Smoke Foundation, Houston
When Hurricane Harvey smashed into Houston in 2017, chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation shifted its focus from fundraising for the Multiple Sclerosis Society to providing immediate relief from the disaster. People in the food-and-beverage industry—whether they were working directly in bars or restaurants or supplying them as farmers or beer brewers—could apply directly for grants to help in the storm’s aftermath. Funds could make up for lost wages so a rent payment wouldn’t be missed, for example, or to help with a medical bill or go toward repairing damage. After Harvey passed, Shepherd and team saw another storm hit North Carolina and wildfires engulf California wine country, so they decided to keep their new aid-based model of giving and expand their relief efforts nationwide.
Southern Smoke’s star-studded annual barbecue helps fund its program, but with Covid-19 the need and fundraising efforts greatly increased as industry-wide layoffs put workers in economic peril. On a single day in March 2020, the foundation received more than double the number of applications for relief as in all the months after Hurricane Harvey. The following day it logged close to triple. On average, each grantee received $2,000 in direct aid. The organization also worked to secure free mental-health counseling for food-industry workers in Texas and their families.
The ramp-up in need afforded an opportunity to hire 40 furloughed restaurant employees as caseworkers who evaluated the flood of applications. Southern Smoke intensified its fundraising efforts and had a quite fortuitous windfall when David Chang became the first celebrity to win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and donated all of his prize money to the organization. During the Covid-19 crisis, the foundation has distributed more than $6 million to some 2,700 people nationwide.
LEE Initiative, Louisville
The Me Too movement sent shock waves through the restaurant industry, as prominent chefs were called out for years of abuse and harassment. Looking to make a positive change to restaurant culture, Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek—the chef and former general manager, respectively, of 610 Magnolia in Louisville—started the LEE Initiative in 2018 to promote diversity and equality. LEE (short for Let’s Empower Employment) focused on training a new generation of leaders in the industry through mentorship programs for women in food and spirits.
When the pandemic hit, Lee and Ofcacek changed their focus to support restaurants and their staffs through the crisis. The effort began modestly, by cooking 400 meals for laid-off restaurant workers in Kentucky one night last March, and eventually spread to a nationwide network of restaurants serving more than a million meals by the end of the year. LEE Initiative provided food and household basics to restaurant staff, front-line workers and touring professionals, like musicians, who lost their livelihoods after they had to get off the road. The nonprofit got a boost from corporate sponsors, including Maker’s Mark, which collaborated on a bourbon that helped raise $2.5 million, and Audi, which loaned LEE a fleet of vehicles for its programs.
Then as lockdowns eased, the initiative pivoted again, this time to rebooting the ailing industry by preserving supply chains under threat from the drastic drop in demand from restaurants, which still weren’t running at full capacity. LEE purchased over $1 million worth of products from small farms so they could continue to operate. Reopened restaurants, in turn, received credits to acquire those ingredients. The duo are continuing revival efforts in 2021, while also pushing forward once more with their Women Culinary & Spirits Program.
Power of 10 Initiative, Washington, D.C.
In the early days of the pandemic shutdowns, restaurants turned to their regular customers, asking them to contribute to GoFundMe accounts for laid-off staff. But D.C. chef and restaurateur Erik Bruner-Yang sought a strategy with a long-term impact rather than a onetime cash grant. He also wanted to reach beyond his own restaurants to help keep other independent businesses afloat, people employed and those on the margins from going hungry. His solution: the Power of 10 Initiative, which he created with the simple conceit that for $10,000 a week a restaurant could retain 10 full-time employees and cook 1,000 meals to donate.
For funding, he treated the nonprofit like a new restaurant in need of investors, calling everyone he knew, especially his loyal clientele, to elicit donations. Soon, the Power of 10 caught the attention of larger foundations, and eventually Capital One came aboard with a cash infusion that enabled it to expand to restaurants around the country. To date, the initiative has supported 65 restaurants with $1.4 million distributed and more than 300,000 meals served. If he can keep donations flowing, Bruner-Yang wants to continue the Power of 10 even after the pandemic passes, because, he laments, food insecurity was a problem before Covid-19 and is sure to persist after.
Beverly Kim, Chicago
The coronavirus was merely the first domino. Next came a whole array of problems, from food insecurity to race-based hate crimes to a lack of child care that disproportionately pushes women out of the labor market. In each instance, chef Beverly Kim, the co-owner of Michelin-starred Parachute and Wherewithall in Chicago, sought solutions.
To provide immediate aid, Kim, along with her husband and co-chef, Johnny Clark, turned Wherewithall into a community kitchen, where people could pay as much or as little as they were able for food; they’ve served a total of some 16,000 meals this year and last. As a wave of hate flared up against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, she started Dough Something, which has enlisted chefs around the country to sell dough-based dishes to raise money for the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice; the effort has raised over $19,000 since April 1, when it began fundraising.
Her plan to help working mothers in the industry dates to her experience raising a family while trying to run a restaurant. While she and Clark built Parachute as they parented a small child, their joint annual income was less than $31,000 working full-time. They qualified for subsidized day care and preschool, but once they earned even a little more, those resources became scarce. That hardship stuck with her. When she saw women leaving the workforce over a lack of child care during the pandemic, the problem’s new urgency pushed her to start Abundance Setting to provide more resources to chefs raising kids. The nonprofit connects young female chefs to mentors who provide guidance. The mentees also receive three ready-to-heat meals a week for three months, taking the burden off cooking every night and allowing them more free time with their families. It’s a program started during the pandemic that will have a lasting impact after.
Eric Rivera, Seattle
Eric Rivera is not shy about sharing his endless stream of ideas and opinions, as his Twitter feed, which alternates between showing off new recipes, posting pictures of dogs and opining on the state of the restaurant industry, attests. But he also puts ideas into practice. Before the pandemic, the Alinea Group alum experimented with disparate dining experiences inside his Seattle restaurant, Addo, which he opened in 2018. One day he might have presented a tasting menu for brunch at his chef ’s counter, and later that same day he’d cook a whole hog for Seahawks fans gathering to watch a game.
As shutdowns rolled across the country at the beginning of Covid-19, restaurants furloughed staff and scrambled to figure out the logistics of converting to a takeout-only model. Rivera’s constant experimentation served him well. He started crafting take-and-bake meal options as well as selling pantry supplies such as his original spice blends and his house-fermented line of hot sauces to supplement his ever-rotating menu. To get around delivery apps charging high fees, he created his own fleet for local deliveries on top of introducing nationwide shipping. And he deployed marketing dollars to increase business through targeted Facebook and Instagram ad buys. Yet he didn’t keep these ideas to himself.
Seeing how most smaller restaurateurs didn’t have the capital to remake their businesses on the fly like big restaurant groups, Rivera made his innovations open source. He hosted six digital seminars free of charge, where he revealed the back end of his business, explaining both his digital and his physical logistics for things like delivery and building e-commerce functionality into restaurant websites. He also shared how he creates new takeout offerings that resonate with customers and keep driving sales. And as restaurants begin to reopen fully, he wants to keep mentoring. He’s planning an incubator space so he can work with young chefs to develop their restaurant concepts and food products.
Lifetime Achievement: Jose Andres
For more than a decade, when a catastrophe has hit somewhere around the globe, José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen (WCK) have sprung into action. The chef at the helm of the expanding restaurant empire ThinkFoodGroup (which includes Michelin two-star Minibar in Washington, D.C.) launched the WCK nonprofit to feed people after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Since then, he has kept going, arriving on the scene of numerous humanitarian crises, from hurricanes and wildfires to the Beirut port explosion last August, tapping into existing infrastructure to produce and deliver meals in a more effective way than most governments can manage. And many times you’ll see him there personally, on the front lines, advocating for those in peril and cooking some of the 50 million meals the organization has served since its founding.
Beyond immediate relief, he’s also determined to leave a lasting impact in the wake of the devastation. In Haiti, WCK’s École des Chefs has provided a culinary school for career development on the island. The organization’s Food Producer Network strengthens local supply chains to make them more resilient in times of crisis. And soon WCK will offer a curriculum to culinary schools to train other chefs to respond to disasters. The organization has worked to secure funding from individuals, foundations (Twitter founder Jack Dorsey gave $5.4 million from his #startsmall philanthropy) and businesses (Grubhub donated $100,000 last holiday season).
As Covid-19 spread across the US, WCK worked with community groups and local governments around the country to pinpoint those facing economic distress, then paid struggling restaurants to prepare the food. WCK has served more than 36 million meals during the pandemic and injected $150 million into the ailing restaurant industry. But Andrés’s impact has been even bigger than those substantial figures let on: His model of aid has become a template for other nonprofits around the world.