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America’s Restaurants Are Closing. What’s Happening to the Food?

Across the country, food banks are receiving an influx of donations from the restaurants that have been shuttered because of the novel coronavirus

Fresh greens in metal bowl on professional kitchen.
Restaurants are scrambling to give away food due to steep declines in business and forced dine-in closures.
Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Like many business owners in the metro Detroit restaurant industry, Amy Jean Thompson has been struggling. Already this winter, catering sales at her restaurant Ideal Bite Community Kitchen had been down and she was eagerly looking to the change in season for some relief. At the beginning of March, things seemed to be looking up. The weather was improving and catering orders started rolling in including a big order for a 100-person event, paid up front for the following week. Then on March 10 the inevitable happened: Michigan identified its first two cases of the novel coronavirus.

On Thursday of that week, as concern over the outbreak gripped the nation and calls for social distancing grew, Thompson got a text from her client requesting to move the event. There was only one problem: The food was already “prepped and ready to go,” Thompson says. Shortly after, the client responded that they were canceling the event and asked her to do something else with the food. “We just want you to donate the food to someone who needs it,” they told her.

In the past week restaurants and caterers scrambled to keep up with the moving target of cancellations and en masse business closures stemming from efforts to curb the rate of novel coronavirus cases. Many, like Thompson, were left holding huge amounts of uneaten food and perishable ingredients. Now, they’re finding creative ways to dispose of those items and help provide food access in communities facing increasingly challenging economic environments.

Left with enough food to feed a small army, Thompson reached out to her community network for advice and was directed to Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a non-profit organization working with at-risk communities in Detroit. There she spoke with the organization’s executive director, Rev. Faith Fowler, who gratefully accepted Thompson’s prepared food. “She said all of her volunteers are canceling, so she doesn’t have people to cook food,” for the neighborhood’s food-insecure population, Thompson says. The meal Thompson’s client donated was used for dinner on Friday at the shelter. Donating the food was a small bit of relief in a stressful and uncertain time. “This is a happy ending to a situation,” Thompson says.

The wood bar at the Block in Detroit is lit from underneath. There’s a TV hanging on the wall.
The Block in Detroit closed its doors indefinitely on March 16, but allowed staff to take home the restaurant’s perishable food.
Stock Detroit

Just a few blocks away from CCSS, Stephanie Byrd was preparing to close up operations at her family-owned restaurant on Monday afternoon in response to a statewide directive. Unlike some restaurants that are trying to remain open with modified takeout and delivery service, Byrd’s restaurant, the Block, is entirely shutting down and saying goodbye to its 29 staff members indefinitely. “It’s been a tough 24 hours, but I’m confident that we will weather this storm,” Byrd says, by phone. “We don’t want to see food go to waste, which is why we are connecting with our employees,” she says.

As a restaurateur, Byrd says she’s worried about the future of her business and those of black-owned establishments like hers that have fewer resources and access to loans. “Black-owned businesses and minority-owned businesses will be affected far more than the average business.” But that will come later.

Her more immediate concern is her employees, most of whom were already feeling a financial pinch before the decision was made to close the restaurant. Over the last week, sales dropped sharply cutting into servers’ tips. “Quite a few staff members have expressed that they just don’t have the income to spend the money on food,” she says. While shoppers across the nation were piling their shopping carts with beans and canned food, folks in the restaurant industry were just trying to make ends meet. “Most of our staff attempted to be prepared, but they just don’t have the resources,” Byrd says. “They’re trying to save money wherever they can.”

Trying to ease the transition to unemployment, Byrd sent out a message to staff offering to open the doors on Monday afternoon so her staff could pick up perishable items from the restaurant. Byrd says she immediately received responses from 10 employees. She plans to have bags ready for workers to pick up, sort of like an improvised grocery store and will donate any remaining food to a local organization in Detroit.

Other restaurants in the area took similar action, sending employees home with leftover loaves of bread and fresh vegetables that were destined to spoil. Noho Hospitality Group closed all of its restaurant and bar properties in New York, Baltimore, and Detroit on Monday. A spokesperson for the group confirms that Noho is collecting its perishable food with plans to offer it to staff and the local food bank.

In Portland, Oregon, where restaurants were ordered to close for dine-in service, effective March 17, the Bollywood Market invited the community to bring their bags and purchase the establishment’s remaining stores of rice, lentils, and spices.

Food banks around the country reported a deluge of requests to rescue food from restaurants, companies, and convention centers as events were canceled and businesses closed office cafeterias and sent employees home.

Two volunteers in yellow vests load a white Second Servings van next to a Petsmart.
Volunteers collect food for Second Servings in Houston.
Second Servings [Courtesy photo]

Second Servings of Houston was already dealing with handling double its normal volume of requests for food pick-up last week from locations like the George R. Brown Convention Center and Minute Maid Park; however, Monday set a new standard: The food rescue organization tells Eater it collected a record-breaking 13,000 pounds of fresh food and redistributed it to more than 90 local charities sites across the city. Due to food safety protocols, Second Servings is only able to pick up food from licensed food businesses and is the only organization in Houston that can collect prepared food. With restaurants and bars in Houston being ordered to close for dine-in service, communications specialist Kristen Torrez says the organization is expecting to field more calls from restaurants.

Volunteers at New York’s City Harvest were also putting in long shifts to deal with the high volume of donations that flooded in from canceled events, as well as office and school closures due to the impacts of COVID-19, totaling nearly 40,000 pounds of fresh produce, prepared foods, meat, dairy, and nonperishable items, food sourcing manager Jenna Harris writes in a statement. But the organization has also received an unprecedented influx of donations from restaurants. “Prior to this, we would typically receive an average of 10,000 pounds of food from restaurants a week,” Harris writes. That amount has more than tripled: Since Friday, City Harvest has collected 36,000 pounds of food from nearly 50 restaurants across the city.

Melissa Spiesman is vice president and national site director for Food Rescue US, an organization whose mission is to reduce food waste while fighting hunger. The nonprofit, established in 2011, works directly with volunteers to coordinate pickups and donations in their communities through an app. As of this week, Food Rescue US is operating with roughly 7,500 volunteers in 25 communities across 17 states and Washington, D.C. “The way that our platform works, we’re perfectly positioned to be active and participatory in events like this,” Spiesman says of the new coronavirus pandemic.

As schools, college campuses, convention centers, restaurants, and caterers wound down operations over the last few days, many were dealing with food that had already been ordered, she says. “As more and more states get the mandate to close bars and restaurants for dining in, we expect that the need for our services will grow.” At the same time, there was more need for assistance in food-insecure communities. “The need has increased and we believe that need will continue to grow as people that rely on gratuities in their regular work [face unemployment]”, Spiesman says.

Food Rescue US is turning to the same places that are donating for help storing food long-term. “Who are the restaurants and convention centers that might have freezer space?” Speisman wonders, and “Where else can we keep that food frozen until there’s a need for it?” Some individuals have already begun to reach out offering their vans and box trucks for transportation.

“This is not going away in a couple of days,” she says.

Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that Second Servings could not pick up prepared foods. It is, in fact, the only organization in Houston that picks up prepared food.

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