There’s no doubt every industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic — though few have experienced the impact like the service industry.
After months of precautionary closures across the nation, many restaurants and bars are shuttering for good. According to research from the National Restaurant Association, four in 10 restaurants had closed by April, while nearly all establishments have suffered severe reduction in profits.1
This has resulted in significant job loss — as of April, two out of three restaurant employees lost their jobs, while millions were furloughed.
In Columbus, one group of restaurant professionals saw an opportunity to help — doing what they know best.
In mid-April, area restauranteurs and industry vets — including co-founders Sangeeta Lakhani, Matthew Heaggans, Reed Woogerd and Letha Pugh — teamed up to launch Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers. The nonprofit’s goal: Eliminate hunger among restaurant workers and their families.
“It takes one catastrophe to realize how fast the rug can get pulled out from under your feet,” says Lakhani, co-founder of The Table. “Within a week (of the shutdown), we decided we had to do something. We thought, ‘Let’s at least take care of our people.’ And what do we know how to do? Cook.”
Through collaboration with industry and community partners, and with the help of volunteers, the team spent the spring and early summer preparing and distributing scratch-made meals for those experiencing hardship due to COVID-19. Most ingredients were donated from restaurants and organizations — like CoverMyMeds — whose kitchens are currently closed.
The first week, the team — Lakhani, Heaggans and a staff of four — produced 100 meals a day. By the second week, they were up to 200.
From their kitchen at the Food Fort, they’ve crafted dishes like Moroccan chicken, veggie lasagna, pad Thai and panko-crusted pork loin, to name just a few.
“This has been super meaningful work for us, as we’re fortunate to still have work to do — but we all know at least one person who’s lost their job and can’t afford to pay rent or buy groceries. It’s a situation of bills versus food for many people,” says Sara Santo, CoverMyMeds’ executive chef. “Working with Service! has allowed us to support something near and dear to us. Plus, we get to cook together again, and this is right in our wheelhouse — cooking for a lot of people.”
On a voluntary basis, the CoverMyMeds culinary team took over the Service! Kitchen on Mondays.
“We called those ‘CoverMyMondays,’ ” Lakhani says.
“(The last few months) have been very different for our team, as working from home presents unique challenges for us,” Santo says. “We’ve been taking advantage of this time not spent in the kitchen to focus on how we can be more innovative, new programs we want to implement when we’re back to the office, and staying engaged with meaningful work. Now, we have the chance to do that.”
Santo says the team took on a “Chopped” mentality in the Service! kitchen.
“This was a creative challenge, taking products from the CoverMyMeds kitchen so that we don’t incur any food cost, and just using what we have,” Santo says. “I’m really proud of the team for being able to work with what’s in front of them. They’ve really been on fire.”
In recent weeks, meal pickups decreased, a sign that many service employees were heading back to work. This week, Lakhani and team are relaunching Service! as an organization that will provide weekly grants for industry employees and their families.
“With unemployment benefits ending soon for many people, we’ve found that they need money more than they need food right now,” Lakhani says. “They need roofs over their heads.”
Grants of up to $500 will support families in transition, medical bills and other financial hardships.
“There’s always going to be a need for (this type of service),” Santo says. “There’s always going to be a person who can’t provide food for themselves or their families.”
To learn more about Service! and for information about donating to the cause, visit them online.
1: The Restaurant Industry Impact Survey, National Restaurant Association, 2020