And while nearly every cook, server, busser, host, and bartender is out of a job right now, thanks to these initiatives, many can still count on family meals.
If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, the concept of family meal probably doesn’t seem all that exciting: enormous plates of food, yes, that’s right, that are shared with coworkers.
But it’s so much more than that.
Working in a restaurant is a lot like being an athlete, a weirdly conditioned, often un-classically trained athlete whose sport falls into the unique category of endurance plus speed plus try-not-to-kill-anyone and don’t-forget-to-smile.
We spend a lot of time on our feet, our shifts are often well beyond eight hours, and there is truly no such thing as a lunch break. When you sit down to a family meal at, say, 4:30pm before the doors open to the public at five o’clock, it’s often the only thing besides maybe some cold french fries you’re going to eat until you wake up the following day.
It’s also one of the few times the whole restaurant crew sits together; when everybody congregates and has a chance to benefit from the hospitality we share with so many strangers over the course of an evening. You’ll never see serving spoons or forks passed around more seamlessly, water glasses topped off so automatically, plates cleared, and tables bussed so quickly as during and after family meals.
Also, and sometimes most importantly, it’s free. It’s a hot meal everyone in the building can count on every day they work.
And while nearly every cook, server, busser, host, and bartender is out of a job right now, thanks to brand-sponsored initiatives, many can still count on family meals. There are currently at least three opportunities for Boston-area industry folks to get free hot food from a professional kitchen …
The Lee Initiative, originally launched by Chef Edward Lee of 601 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky, has become a national emergency food and goods program. In Boston, they have partnered with Maker’s Mark and Fort Point’s Blue Dragon to provide meals and essential supplies (like disinfectant and diapers) from 3-5pm seven days a week. As of May 1, more than 1,850 meals had gone to out-of-work hospitality workers in their division (MA, MD, DC, GA, TN, LA), with over 9,000 meals going to people nationwide.
“Our community is the one that’s going to be hit the hardest financially, and we could be like this for a long time,” Jack Kavanagh, a luxury brands specialist with Beam Suntory, said in an interview.
“We don’t want people to be hurting or go hungry.”
In April, the local branch of Lee Initiative expanded its reach by partnering with Jamaica Plain restaurant Jamaica Me Hungry’s food truck to add two locations—one at 1000 Bennington Street in East Boston (4-5:30pm), and a second at 1225 Centre Street in JP (6-7:30pm) for meal and supply pick-up.
“Getting down to Fort Point wasn’t always doable, but once we got mobile and added extra access points we’ve seen a huge uptick in people coming in and we’re really excited, that’s what we’re here for,” Kavanagh said.
Beam Suntory also has an independent project, Shift Meals To-Go, which partners with local restaurants offering take-out service. From 3pm-8pm on pre-scheduled days there is a Beam Suntory tab open at a local restaurant. Hospitality industry workers can call the restaurant, place an order for pick-up courtesy of Beam Suntory.
“We’re really working on making this a two-pronged attack,” Kavanagh said. “We want to keep the Lee Initiative running because that seems to be the workhorse, accessing the most people day to day, and then if we can show some love to one of our local independent teams we want to make sure they see some love, too. It’s a multifaceted program.”
In addition to the Lee Initiative’s daily meal service and Beam Suntory’s partnered Shift Meals, Pernod Ricard has an ongoing partnership with local restaurants to sponsor Staff Meals every Friday.
“Throughout our division and across the country we saw so many bartenders and trade folks that we work with every day out of work,” Lily Chow, an area activation manager for the brand said. “Our first thought was, How can we help? How can we help and help support our bartenders, and our establishments and our industry?”
“When people are in need what do they need the most?” Chow added. “They need money and they need food.”
In a concept similar to Shift Meals, Pernod Ricard’s Staff Meals provide free food to out-of-work hospitality industry employees while simultaneously supporting a local restaurant.
Orders for Staff Meals are placed through local Pernod Ricard representatives on social media: Karisa Penney (@spirits_of_boston); Lisa McGrath (@bevys_in_boston); and Jessica Knight (@ladyknightoflibations). These reps then call the restaurant and place the order.
Menus are posted on Instagram every Wednesday, and orders can be made via DM through early Friday mornings. Meals are available for pick-up throughout the restaurant’s current COVID hours of operation. As of May 1, 1,850 Shift Meals have gone to people in need in the Boston area, while national numbers are closer to 10,000.
All three initiatives plan on operating for as long as necessary, and each is hoping to reach as many people as possible and to be continuous supporting options for out-of-work restaurant employees.
“Four years ago my wife and I were both bartending full-time,” Kavanagh said. “Right now, we’re both still employed, but if this were different times—if this shutdown had happened when either of us was still behind the bar—we would be in a bad way.”
“Money is important, all the donations that are going to industry organizations is important,” he added, “but we want to be there repeatedly if people need it. Money donations are a one time thing.”
As we drag on into the eighth week of shutdown, even with unemployment money coming in for some people—there are thousands in the industry without access to that critical safety net—saving every little bit counts for many restaurant employees.
“This is something we want to invest in until people are back on their feet,” Chow said. “It’s just such a staple in the community.”
“Food and alcohol are what connect everybody,” she said. “Sharing a meal, sharing a cocktail, that’s where people come together. The bar, the restaurant, whatever it is, that’s the vector, that’s where everything comes together.
“And we want to help make sure that comes back.”
Meals and supplies available from the Lee Initiative from 3pm-5pm seven days a week at Blue Dragon at 324 A St, Boston, from 4pm-5:30 pm at 1000 Bennington Street in East Boston and from 6-7:30 pm at 1225 Centre Street in JP.
For Beam Suntory Shift Meal info check out @jackatthebar on Instagram for updates.
To place an order for a Pernod Ricard Staff Meal follow Boston-Area representatives Karisa Penney (@spirits_of_boston), Lisa McGrath (@bevys_in_boston) and Jessica Knight (@ladyknightoflibations) and stay tuned for upcoming locations.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.