“I’ve been feeling kind of like garbage lately, being this restaurant worker and feeling helpless,” Beth Schunke told me.
When the director of operations for Hawkeye Hospitality—a group that runs five restaurants in the Boston area—had to shut all of them down for the foreseeable future she didn’t know what else to do. After listening in on a phone call her doctor partner was having at home with his team she came up with a plan to feed some of the frontline medical workers. Not at work where they’re being well fed but later on when they’re off the clock. When they’re too exhausted to cook.
Schunke enlisted Sara Sweet Kelsey who like Beth is an old friend of mine and Boston restaurant industry family forever and a few others and they started a project called Front Line Family Meals Boston. They describe it on their website like so:
Front Line Family Meals (FLFM) provides free home-cooked dinners for our nurses, respiratory therapists and other front-line healthcare workers, who are caring for COVID-19 patients.
Many are working up to 100 hours a week, stepping up to roles they never previously played and bravely dealing with uncertainty during this trying time. A lot of this is done at the expense of self care. We know that most want to spend what little time they have at home with the family, instead of cooking.
At the end of their evening shift, on their way home, each front line worker will receive an individually-packed home-cooked meal for 4 to 6 people. We will start with providing 30 family dinners a day, 3 days a week to bring home at the end of the day.
Now in their second week they’re already expanding and hoping to do around 150 meals this time out then see where it grows from there. I talked to Beth about the idea behind it and how it’s been working so far.
What was the impulse behind starting this? Well, obviously I know what the impulse was, but what was the kick in the ass that got you to try to do something?
My partner who I live with is a cardiologist, so he’s partially essential at this point. I’ve been hearing a lot of his conference calls when I was at home. That day my brother and I had donated to buy lunch for the ICU at MGH and Beth Israel hospitals. It felt really awesome. It felt like I did something. I’ve been feeling kind of garbage being this restaurant worker and feeling helpless. On one of the calls they were talking about how understaffed the nurses are, and how some nurses are working eighty to one hundred hours a week. That broke my heart. Then I thought about being a mom and having to go home… I worked restaurant hours before, and making meals is the last thing you want to do when you go home, but you have to do it.
I also heard the ICU was being inundated with food deliveries, and they were really happy, but it was kind of getting in the way. I said I have an idea. Tell me if it’s crazy. What if we made food to feed these people’s families? So when they do get home after a fourteen hour day they can just pop it in the oven, not worry about it, and sit down and enjoy that time with their family.
We called a couple nurse friends of ours and they were like, Oh my god, I came home tonight, my kids were eating Lucky Charms, my husband burned a whole chicken. I’ve been eating Stouffer’s… That would be amazing. I said fuck it let’s do it.
The next day I set up all the social media accounts. I called my friend Ira who’s good with websites. I called Sara and we brainstormed the operations, how to do it safely. By the end of the day we had launched the GoFundMe and socials and website.
How many people are involved and about how many meals have you made so far?
This week we did ninety six meals and we had six people cooking. Next week I have 10 people cooking close to 150 meals.
It’s just various friends from the restaurant industry?
Yeah the first week was people who have worked with me in the past or currently. This week is more of them and friends of people already involved. We’ve created this kind of web of everyone cooking at home to do the social distance, then a delivery system where people pick up in certain areas and we drop everything off outside the hospitals so no one gets too close.
What’s morale like for restaurant people in restaurants right now? Everyone feel fucked?
I just got off the phone with my boss about the fact that we could possibly get the greenlight to open on May 18, although I don’t think we will. I think restaurants will be the last thing to open. I think the scariest part for tipped employees is that we’ll be able to open at 25% capacity. That’s scary for them and also operational teams. What are we going to do without servers or bartenders? And 25% doesn’t cover the bills. We’re not going to make enough money. And now there’s starting to be a shortage on to-go supplies and proteins.
I think that even if we do get the greenlight to open we might pump the breaks on it a bit to see how things roll out before going for it. I know a lot of restaurants are getting antsy and are reopening for takeout because a) they’re bored and b) they need to start generating some revenue. With this paycheck protection program small business loan thing the clock starts ticking as soon as it hits your bank account. So you have to start spending the money in order for it to be considered a grant and not a loan.
And you have to use it on your employees right?
For payroll, to pay vendors, and to pay rent.
What’s been the general reaction from medical people when you deliver the food?
Pure joy. Pure thanks. A lot of tears. One thing we did think of was one woman was coming in for her night shift at 7 pm, and her husband was dropping her off with the kids in the car. She got a cheese lasagna, and she came over to us, grabbed her lasagna, and put it in the car with her family to take home. To know that you’re really impacting several families so many times a week…it’s humbling.
You’re going to increase for this week, and then grow from there?
If this week goes smoothly, we’ll try to double it again for the following week, and move away from just Beth Israel and send another team to MGH or another hospital.
What would you say to other people who read this and think about wanting to do something like it?
We’ve been so fortunate with the amount of donations we’ve received [over $16,00 so far] so people don’t need to give us any money right now. Hopefully this will be over before we can spend all of it. It will still go to a good cause, the Greater Boston Food Bank, when we’re finished. But if anyone wants to help in any way, reach out to me through the website. If you know how to cook we’d be interested in talking to you.
What if people want to start something similar in their own city?
I would talk to anybody about that. My whole thing, as I said in that awful Fox 25 interview, is this could be the blueprint for people to do this in other cities. I’m not trying to toot my horn, but this is what I do, I run operations, so I figured out how to make it happen with all of these limitations. It can be easily recreated in any other city. I don’t own it. It’s just a human to human thing.