Neighbors Serving Neighbors: NYC Restaurants Giving Back During Covid-19

Restaurants across New York City are feeding those in need
Restaurants across New York City are feeding those in need | Courtesy of Ruby's Cafe
Though devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, restaurants across New York City are finding ways to keep their doors open and feed their neighbors, offering reduced-price and donation-based meals. After all, community spirit is part of what being a New Yorker is all about.

In New York City, the restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Seemingly overnight, neighborhood eateries were forced to close their kitchens and lay off staff for the foreseeable future, leaving thousands in the hospitality industry unemployed and hundreds of thousands uncertain as to when their next paycheck might appear. In the midst of these unprecedented circumstances, restaurants in the city have found ways to step up and continue to serve their communities to keep their kitchens in business and their neighbors fed.

Restaurants to the rescue with donation-based meals

Many restaurants across NYC are serving “pay-as-you-wish” meals as a creative solution for keeping their staff employed while feeding the neighborhood affordably.

“As devastating as this shutdown is for the entire hospitality industry, there is a group of people at risk of going hungry in the short-term,” reads a note on Brooklyn restaurant Esme’s website. While the Greenpoint eatery remained open (they have now had to suspend business for the time being), they served take-out meal kits, with 100 percent of the proceeds supporting those relying on food bank services through Rethink Food.

Many restaurants are letting customers set the price to help out during these drastic times | Courtesy of Anella

The “pay-as-you-wish” meal kits included everything from gluten-free meatloaf and mashed potatoes to vegetable curry. “We have always tried to keep central to our operation the idea that we are neighbors serving neighbors,” states Esme’s Instagram post.

Just down the road, chef Bao Bao of Baoburg was becoming increasingly more anxious about the future of her restaurant and staff. “For a small restaurant like ours, this is pretty much a death sentence,” she says. “We are all hurting, but I can’t afford to give up.”

Baoburg is serving a five-dollar survival menu in addition to their regular menu | Courtesy of Baoburg

As the grim reality started to sink in, her New York survival instincts fought back, and Baoburg’s “survival meals” were born. Standing six feet apart, hungry New Yorkers line up outside the Southeast Asian restaurant to order from the five-dollar (£4), cash only, survival menu. Baoburg is open from noon to 7pm, serving seventeen different dishes on its survival menu, from Korean pork bao to pad thai, for pickup only. The rest of their menu is available for delivery.

Uptown in the newly built Hudson Yards, Mercado Little Spain, has turned itself into a community kitchen providing discounted meals for those in need. In a tweet, chef José Andrés announced, “In good times and bad, a hot plate of food is vital nourishment for the body and soul. With the urgency of now, we’ll make food the solution, not the problem.” The Spanish food hall is serving discounted meals for take-out service only, from noon to 4pm from their side door. Their menu includes everything from gazpacho to macarrones a la marina (a pasta dish). To help support his staff, chef José Andrés also created an “Employee Support Fund” e-gift card program. All proceeds will provide direct relief to his employees by extending compensation and health benefits.

Each day, additional restaurants join the movement, offering affordable “pay-as-you-can” meals in order to continue providing community support. Among them are Anella and Jimmy’s Diner in Brooklyn, and Anton’s in the West Village.

Little Tong Noodle Shop in the East Village is offering meals for a five-dollar suggested donation | Courtesy of Little Tong

With more and more restaurants suffering from the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, local nonprofit Rethink Food wanted to offer at-risk restaurants a lifeline of support. The restaurant response program is designed to provide 30 different NYC restaurants with grants for up to US$40,000 (£32,000) to help keep their kitchens running. Restaurants in the program are expected to turn their kitchens into a food distribution center, serving pick-up and delivery meals at affordable prices to help feed their communities.

The recently closed Little Tong Noodle Shop is the first restaurant to participate in the program. Monday to Saturday, between noon and 6pm, the restaurant will be serving dan dan noodles with spiced pork and pickled cabbage for a suggested donation of five dollars, available for delivery and pickup from its East Village location. “We’ve always thought of Little Tong as a place of comfort and sustenance,” says Simon Tong, chef and partner at Little Tong. “As the landscape of our city changes amidst this global health crisis, we will continue to uphold those same values.” The restaurant is asking patrons for financial support during this time by donating to their GoFundMe page.

A restaurant inspiring the community

What started as a simple donation of free leftover bread and baked goods, from Farine Baking Company in Queens to those in need, quickly evolved into a full-blown community effort. Sitting in the front window of the bakery, the “free food” table now overflows with sandwiches and various pantry items donated by people in the neighborhood.

“We are bakers, we feed people. It’s our duty,” said Michael Mignano, chef and owner. Mignano is humbled by how quickly the community jumped in to support his donations. “If everyone just does something, whatever they can do, it’ll actually make an impact.”

Around the beginning of April, the Jackson Heights bakery plans to transform itself into a partial grocery store, selling any remaining eggs, butter or extra cooking essentials people might need. The bakery remains open seven days a week, with food available for delivery.

Stronger together

Brooklyn restaurants Olmsted and Gertie have turned their kitchens into relief centers, providing hundreds of free take-out dinners for struggling restaurant workers in addition to offering non-perishable food and toiletries. Olmsted will be serving take-out meals in Prospect Heights seven days a week, from 3pm to 7pm, and Gertie will be serving meals in Williamsburg, Tuesday to Thursday from 4pm to 7pm. Donations can be made to these restaurants in order to continue serving their communities through the LEE Initiative’s Restaurant Workers Relief Fund.

Olmsted has turned its kitchen into a relief center with free food and toiletries for laid-off restaurant workers | Courtesy of Olmsted

“In New York City, we will always come together to protect one another,” says Max Katzenberg, partner at Olmsted. To further unify and protect the restaurant community, chef Greg Baxtrom and his partner Max Katzenberg founded the New York Hospitality Coalition to help restaurant workers publicly advocate for government action.

Black Seed Bagels co-owner Matt Kliegman also felt it was his duty to help struggling restaurant workers. “It pained us that people were getting laid off, because this time they can’t go to the restaurant next door to get a job,” Kliegman says. “So we wanted to do something.”

With only a few staff remaining, Black Seed continues to serve the quintessential New York comfort food: bagels, limited to delivery and take-out at select locations from 8am to 3pm. The bagelry invites laid-off restaurant staff across the city to come in and enjoy a bagel and coffee on the house.

“At this point, if you’re a restaurant and you’re open, you’re not doing it for the money, you’re doing it to help people,” Kliegman continues. “We’re not doctors, but we’re feeding people.”

Not all heroes wear capes

As the numbers of those infected by Covid-19 dramatically increases in NYC, doctors, nurses and medical staff are on the front lines of the pandemic, treating the continuously revolving door of patients arriving at their hospitals. And while doctors across the city work tirelessly around the clock, one eatery in particular recognized the need to keep New York’s medical personnel well fed.

“Service is the backbone of the restaurant industry,” explains Liam Johnson, co-owner of Ruby’s Cafe, which has multiple Manhattan locations. “After we closed our doors to dine-in guests, we immediately began searching for a new outlet of service: helping out our healthcare heroes.”

Avocado toasts and grain bowls are going to first responders from Ruby’s Cafe | Courtesy of Ruby's Cafe

The Australian café jumped into action, preparing all their crowd favorites: avocado toast, grain bowls, spicy rigatoni and fried chicken burgers with truffle fries. The Ruby’s team was greeted by tearful and emotional doctors and medical staff, so grateful for the fuel to continue their shifts.

Ruby’s Cafe has taken on the responsibility of feeding frontline medical workers | Courtesy of Ruby's Cafe

To help sustain Ruby’s hospital food deliveries, the café has created a GoFundMe asking for charitable donations and support.

“The greatest quality we have during times of crisis is compassion and empathy; every little bit makes a difference,” reads a post on Ruby’s Instagram, “Not all heroes wear capes.”