The city issued a press release on June 30 announcing the COVID-19 Mass Feeding program and I am happy to report that Chef’s Brigade is involved.
You may ask yourself, “Chef’s Brigade? Isn’t that the thing that Robert was involved in and wrote about some time back?” Good question, and yes.
Chef’s Brigade started as a way to connect restaurants with first responders and over the course of 45 days we raised around $80,000 to pay restaurants for thousands of meals we delivered to, among others, the Orleans Parish EMS, various NOFD and NOPD districts and Lambeth House.
The majority of the money we raised came from crowd-funding, though we were fortunate to receive a grant from the Mary Freeman Wisdom Foundation. I don’t know if there’s an objective way to rate foundations and I don’t have a great deal of experience judging whether one foundation is better than another, but I can tell you that the Mary Freeman Wisdom foundation is pretty awesome.
Despite our fundraising successes, we weren’t able to pay restaurants all that much for the meals they produced, and even so we had more restaurants wanting to participate than we could handle.
That was because restaurants generally want to stay in business, and there was little business to be had, and also because so many restaurants are truly, deeply connected to this community and will give everything to see it survive.
The consensus opinion among people who pay attention to the restaurant industry is that we have had “too many” restaurants for a number of years. I did not put “too many” in quotes because I disagree, but rather to point out how subjective that idea is. How many is “too many” if there are enough diners to go around? When we have tourists for Carnival and Jazz Fest and just generally tourists, there are diners aplenty. Now?
I don’t think anyone expected the bubble to pop in quite the manner it has. The onset of the virus coincided with what would normally have been one of the busiest times of the year for local restaurants. It’s that brief period between February and late May when we have reasonably cool weather and there’s not much chance a hurricane will spoil a tourist’s plans. The lockdown was necessary but it did irreparable damage to our restaurants.
Chef’s Brigade was like that story where a Dutch kid puts his finger in a leaky dike to prevent a flood – he wasn’t going to fix the overall problem any more than Chef’s Brigade could solve the overall problem for restaurants – but we did our best.
A couple of weeks after Chef’s Brigade went on hiatus for lack of funds to pay the restaurants, the city issued a request for proposals asking people to figure out a way to use local restaurants to feed up to 30,000 people twice a day. You may imagine our surprise and delight, since getting restaurants together with folks who need food was our raison d’etre.
The program is complicated and while Chef’s Brigade briefly considered submitting a bid on our own, we were fortunate to partner with Revolution Foods, D’livery Nola and NOCHI, because each of them bring something essential to the success of the program.
Now that the press release has been issued by the city, it will be a matter of time before restaurants in New Orleans are serving meals to residents and I can assure you those meals are going to be outstanding. These restaurants are anxious to get back to work and they want to cook great food.
The idea of involving local restaurants in programs like this seems obvious in retrospect. Why wouldn’t you use local restaurants to feed people in need?
There’s a lot more to it, and I’m very happy I don’t have to worry about things like packaging and delivery, both of which seemed like insurmountable barriers before we started working with Revolution Foods, NOCHI and the Healthy School Food Collaborative.
We’re putting on a pilot program here in New Orleans. If it works it may expand. I hope it doesn’t, because that would necessarily mean the virus hasn’t been contained.
But I’ll probably be there anyway.