Austin restaurants battle to survive pandemic through good works

On March 17, 2020, the city of Austin imposed unprecedented restrictions on bars and restaurants to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The new rules have effectively shut down the city’s second largest industry, driving thousands unemployed and upset small business owners.

It sparked a number of extraordinary impacts our city is still grappling with: commercial kitchens across the city have closed, and local farms and vendors who rely on restaurants for most of their business had an abundance of goods and services couldn’t sell them anywhere.

As local hospitality imploded, the pandemic also revealed how Austin’s most vulnerable populations – children, seniors, homebound and undocumented people – rely on a thinly tied safety net that has been torn apart by the pandemic.

Over the past 10 months, the Austin restaurant community and populations have grown together, often unaware, by hospitality executives, local nonprofits, and city officials. At the forefront is Good Work Austin, a local organization that got organized to keep local restaurants running and to make sure the residents of Austin, Texas, one of the boomtowns in the country, have enough to eat.

Hungry and stuck at home

At L’Oca d’Oro, one of the city’s most popular Italian restaurants, co-owners Adam Orman and chef Fiore Tedesco found themselves at a crossroads last spring. Her miller’s dining room and kitchen were empty for the foreseeable future, but her suppliers, which included local farms and vendors, were still in stock.

The couple mentioned it during their weekly Zoom call with Good Work Austin, the 3-year-old nonprofit founded by the L’Oca crew along with like-minded small businesses and members of the Austin’s hospitality scene. The group, eventually known as Good Work, was founded in 2017 to campaign for the city’s first paid sick leave ordinance and has continued to work with the city on labor rights, minimum wages, and other restaurant-related issues.

During their meeting, the group discussed the puzzle – empty kitchens, hungry Austinites – and decided to take action. They used United Way for Greater Austin to get access to funding, and with a mix of private donations and grants secured by United Way, Good Work started Austin Safe Table, a project that involves two local restaurants with 700 meals per week prepare elderly Austinites faced with systemic barriers to access to food.

To bring Safe Table to market, Good Work Austin has partnered with Serafina, a pantry on the ground floor of Rebekah Baines Johnson Tower in East Austin. The RBJ Tower is home to hundreds of low-income seniors, many of whom have been plagued by the threat of COVID-19. As the pandemic continued, Serafina was crippled by a shortage of volunteers due to home stay orders, a lack of donations and an increase in the number of people in need of her services. When things got really bad, Serafina’s founder Farah Rivera would go to her local NextDoor and ask the neighbors for donations to the pantry.

Of the two restaurants that were won over to the Safe Table initiative, Reunion 19, a taqueria that opened in February 2020 and is just a few blocks from the RBJ Tower. Early last spring, as the impact of the pandemic worsened, chef and co-owner Christopher Haydostian was linked with Good Work Austin, a move he believes helped save his fledgling business.

“It’s you who are saving my business, I told Adam,” says Haydostian, who is also working on another Good Work Austin project that feeds the homeless in Austin. “We survived 30 days as an actually operating restaurant. We’re open again [last spring] with nothing and … our almost 30 employees have shrunk to four. “

With the funding, Haydostian was able to add a few more employees to his skeleton crew and now works six days a week to prepare, package and deliver meals to Safe Table, where they are then delivered directly to the apartment doors of RBJ residents.

“Right now it’s great, I have a purpose, that’s a whole new level of love and passion for what we do,” says Haydostian.

But the restaurateur is also aware of how precarious his situation has become and how much it takes to keep his dream alive.

“I’ve been a chef for 17 years and I’ve always dreamed of having my own restaurant. I’ll sacrifice everything to make my dreams come true,” says Haydostian. “I’ve applied for every single credit card I can get. That’s how I keep the restaurant going.”

Outside of school and with no options

For thousands of Austin school children dependent on breakfast and lunch at school, the COVID-19 home stay orders threw them back into food insecurity. In order to ensure the nutrition of the children, the Austin ISD Food Service expanded its scope to offer breakfast and lunch to children and their carers throughout the pandemic. This was a massive undertaking that required the city of Austin to approve food access contracts.

When AISD saw the opportunity to feed these children while helping restaurants generate income and pay staff, they provided the contracts to local businesses, and Good Work Austin applied and won the gig, hitting great food service -Companies.

“We were in a really good place when the pandemic started. [because we] We have a foundation and we have our values ​​and we have like-minded companies in touch with one another, “Orman explains.” We started talking to the city council about food contracts in Austin. “

By midsummer, the nonprofit had contracts with both the Austin Independent School District and Austin Public Health, delivering daily meals for school children from local kitchens such as L’Oca d’Oro, Colleen’s Kitchen, Contigo, Rosedale Kitchen and Chez Zee and Swift’s attic. Within a few weeks, the restaurants were producing 25,000 meals a week for about $ 5 per meal.

“Finding something predictable, finding something permanent, even if you get five dollars a meal, is a win,” Orman says.

Such a major transition has not been without its challenges. In the early days, Chef Tedesco even struggled to find a saucepan in the L’Oca kitchen that was big enough to make the amount of sauce needed for a meal.

“The first few weeks were such a disaster,” laughs Orman. “We found the right packaging so that the food looks good, so that the food doesn’t leak, so it doesn’t take up too much space and it still does.” in compostable packaging and all pay well. “

Make sure everyone is eating well

On October 15, the Austin City Council approved a nine-week agreement with Good Work Austin to provide meals to the homeless, known as Eating Apart Together, or the clever acronym EAT.

In addition to feeding hungry Austinites, the Eating Apart Together initiative has also helped pump cash into local restaurants like Reunion 19, which in addition to its Safe Table work, makes meals for three food banks in the area.

In the past few months, EAT’s success has secured a temporary contract extension through February. And then? Nobody knows, but Orman hopes the city will see the value in honoring those contracts with local businesses.

“We have this one contract that helps a couple of restaurants [stay] fast, “he says.” Let’s make sure we keep adding more contracts and restaurants so we can make ourselves indispensable. So the city is relying on us to prepare these meals and keep the staff busy. “

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This story was produced in collaboration with Dissolve magazine. A full picture gallery can be found here.

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