How restaurants are making 800,000 meals for frontline workers

  • Non-profits Frontline Foods and Off Their Plate have raised $9 million to make meals for frontline workers.
  • They've partnered with hundreds of restaurants across the U.S. to make 800,000 meals so far.
  • The money raised goes straight to kitchen staff wages and the restaurants' food costs.
  • The program helps keep kitchens running and restaurant workers employed in one of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19.
  • We spoke with two eateries in NYC, Golden Diner and Blackbarn, to see how they're making thousands of meals for frontline workers.

Following is a full transcript of this video.

Narrator: While most restaurants are empty right now, some are still running, but they look a little different.

Sam Yoo: It all happened really fast, as you know. We definitely didn't have any time to prepare. We sort of just winged it.

Narrator: This restaurant's making 300 meals, but none of it's going to the dining room. They're cooking for frontline workers.

Mike Pacheco: We're on our way to NYU Langone Respiratory Therapy.


Narrator: To deliver meals for nurses, doctors, and EMS workers. Not only are they making hundreds of the same meals, they're trying to stay healthy and keep the restaurant open in a time when most aren't making it.

Yoo: It's a lot of bulk cooking and requires a lot of space and planning. Last week, we gave these huge burritos, like, what we imagine if someone got off a hard day's shift, like, what they would want to eat.

Narrator: Programs like this have popped up across the country: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles. The business model is simple: Donations pay for restaurants to make meals that are then sent to essential workers out on the front line. One nonprofit, Frontline Foods, has raised $5 million in donations so far.

Ilana Brown: The night that the city mandated all the restaurants shut down, we decided to collect some money and send some frontline workers some full-priced meals from local restaurants. And then eventually that evolved into us starting a GoFundMe. We raised a lot of money really fast.

Narrator: Frontline Foods has partnered with 1,000 restaurants in 56 cities. So far, the organization has donated 400,000 meals. One of Frontline's partner restaurants is Blackbarn in New York City.


Pacheco: We partnered up with Ilana very early on in the pandemic, probably about a week and a half, almost two weeks, after the city officially shut down.

Narrator: Another organization, Off Their Plate, has the same business model. Started in Boston, the organization has raised $4 million, and its 100 partner restaurants have made nearly 400,000 meals. Golden Diner in New York City was one of its first restaurant partnerships.

Yoo: It was a no-brainer. We get to do something that's socially and morally positive. On top of that, they would be helping support us as a business to bring back a lot of our staff.

Narrator: Golden Diner is a small shop and was able to keep on 90% of its staff thanks to Off Their Plate.

Yoo: They're more contributing to the payroll costs, which is top priority.


Narrator: Across town, Blackbarn is a huge restaurant.

Pacheco: We had to furlough our entire team.

Narrator: Just four of Mike's 100-person staff stayed on to make meals for frontline workers. And their workday looks a little different. They're cooking during a pandemic, so, obviously, safety comes first.

Yoo: All employees have to bring a change of clothes. We also supply shirts and aprons. We also do daily temperature checks.

Narrator: Golden Diner sanitizes door handles every hour and has sanitizer buckets at each workstation. And Blackbarn employees wear gloves and masks while cooking.


Yoo: The week before we have to make the food, we get, basically, a call sheet of how many meals, where it's going, as in which hospital it's going to, and, you know, what time, so whether it's a lunch or dinner or breakfast meal.

Narrator: Both restaurants have to cater to food restrictions: vegan, vegetarian...

Pacheco: We had one hospital, I think Harlem hospital, that had a lot of Muslim staff. So we went and sourced halal, and, you know, we got pretty creative with some of these deliveries.

Yoo: Every week, all the chefs get together, and we're like, "OK, what are we gonna do this week?" So, we also have, like, a protein, a starch, a little side, and then we always have a salad.

Narrator: Frontline Foods pays Blackbarn $20 per meal. Golden Diner gets $10 per meal from Off Their Plate. The chefs order ingredients from their same suppliers, but the cooking process has changed to accommodate so many meals.


Yoo: When you're cooking for 300 or 200, you sort of have to just, like, do something where you can just, like, get it hot and, like, get it on a plate.

Narrator: Also, everything has to be made in bulk. Yoo: Instead of using just one small rice cooker, now we cook rice in the oven in, like, these large hotel pans.

Narrator: Remember, Blackbarn is big, so it's got the kitchen space. But Golden Diner had to convert its dining room into prep and packaging space.

Yoo: We'll just put all those tables together, and we'll just plate all the food.

Narrator: Once everything's cooked, it's packaged up: cartons are lined up and filled one by one.


Pacheco: We make sure that the meals can be either eaten cold or heated up. So, what we would do is we would box them hot, but they would last long. They wouldn't have any issues holding.

Narrator: Then everything's labeled, each with the restaurant and dish's name. Finally, they're bagged and loaded up for delivery. Off Their Plate used to provide vans for delivery, but it got a bit too complicated.

Yoo: We actually put just, like, a social-media blast out asking if anyone would be interested in helping us out. And so now we have our own volunteer drivers.

Narrator: From the beginning, restaurants working with Frontline Foods needed to deliver their own meals. Blackbarn calls Ubers, but it's not always easy.

Pacheco: A lot of time is spent waiting for the Uber, one that would be willing to pick us up and take us to these hospitals. And when they find out that they're going to a hospital or when they're about to deliver a bunch of food, they cancel the ride, they drive off.


We're on our way to meet the contact now to drop off what is roughly around, I believe, over 2,100 meals that we've delivered since the start of this pandemic.

Narrator: Then Mike hands off the meals to hospital workers.

Gurpreet Kaur: It was just one of those things, that it took away the burden of having to figure out how to do "normal life" things while we were taking care of patients. And I felt like for my team, it was a great way for them not to have to leave a COVID-positive unit to go outside, go to, like, a deli, go somewhere and expose anybody else.

Narrator: Right now, Off Their Plate orders make up about 20% of Golden Diner's business. But with no dine-in service to support his restaurant...

Yoo: In terms of profits, we're not really seeing much of that. It's just sort of sustaining.


Narrator: And neither is Blackbarn. But the programs are helping keep the restaurants' ovens on until they can reopen for dine-in service. For now, they'll keep feeding all those hungry workers out on the front line.

Yoo: We're just excited about what we're gonna serve them next.

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