As some noncommercial operations press pause, restaurants look to fill the void

Restaurants across the country are working to provide food and support for healthcare staff, K-12 students and families experiencing food insecurity.
Photograph courtesy of Chipotle Mexican Grill

As many noncommercial foodservice operations have ceased or scaled back amid the coronavirus pandemic, a number of restaurants have stepped up to provide food and support for healthcare workers, K-12 students and families experiencing food insecurity. Here’s a sampling of those recent efforts.

Salad chains offer sustenance

Through a new partnership, fast-casual chain Just Salad has begun delivering meals to healthcare workers at seven hospitals in the Mount Sinai Health System, to the tune of 10,000 meals weekly. The hospitals that will receive these deliveries are located in various neighborhoods of New York City, which has quickly become the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S.

"As a NYC-based company, we are honored to serve the healthcare workers taking care of New Yorkers at this extraordinarily challenging time,” Nick Kenner, Just Salad CEO, said in a statement. “I’m also gratified that this program will bring some of our team members back to work while providing nutritious and satisfying food to the heroes providing medical care at these seven hospitals.”

Just Salad competitor Sweetgreen has made a similar effort to feed healthcare staff amid the coronavirus outbreak. Earlier this month, the chain announced that it would deliver free salads and bowls to hospitals near its restaurants. Sweetgreen said it would also be setting up some of the chain’s Outposts, shelves where customers can pick up meals, at hospital sites.

A new kind of kids meal

Panera Bread has partnered with the Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prepare USDA-approved meals that are distributed to students in Ohio, where K-12 schools will be closed until at least May 1. The meals include salads, sandwiches and veggie snack boxes, and all contain dairy, lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables in accordance with USDA guidance. The meals will cost the same amount as a meal served at a school that participates in the Federal School Lunch Program. Panera is currently working with the USDA and the CHA to expand the program to other states.

Aid for food-insecure families

In the Denver area, restaurant group Edible Beats has partnered with Denver Public Schools in an effort to feed families across the local community. The group is giving out 250 free dinners each night to families experiencing food insecurity. Families can pick up the meals at the restaurant El Five, and any meals that are left over will be donated to an organization helping homeless youth.

In addition, the Gaithersburg, Md., location of Silver Diner is partnering with nonprofit Real Food for Kids to feed local children who are missing meals due to school closures. Every weekday, the comfort food concept is offering as many single-serve, healthy meals as a family needs for their kids that day. Workers from Silver Diner and Real Food for Kids are on hand to distribute the meals from a pop-up tent outside the restaurant; cars can pull up for curbside pickup.

silver dinerPhotograph courtesy of Silver Diner

Silver Diner and Real Food for Kids teamed up as part of a project called Chefs Feeding Families, launched on March 17 with chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery in nearby Arlington, Va. “Chefs Feeding Families aims to feed children and their families, no questions asked,” said Bonnie Moore, board member of Real Food for Kids. “We also aim to support our local restaurants and provide continued employment for restaurant workers. Our hope is to roll this out to other areas as well.”

Helping hands

A drive to donate latex gloves to healthcare workers is garnering support with restaurants and bars in Kentucky and Ohio, thanks to an initiative led by Covington, Ky.-based Agave & Rye, a tequila and bourbon hall with a Mexican menu. COVID-19 has depleted the supply of personal protective equipment, but shuttered restaurants may be sitting on a surplus of latex gloves. So Agave & Rye launched Gloves on Hand, a campaign to drum up donations for hospital staffs. To participate in the campaign, operators can visit the restaurant’s website.

Pedal it forward

Heritage Bicycles, a bike store and cafe with several locations in Chicago, is letting customers pay it forward by purchasing coffee and/or breakfast for first responders and other essential workers. Customers can choose from breakfast sandwiches, coffee and donuts, which are then delivered around the city.

A smoothie break

Tropical Smoothie Cafe launched the #InItTogether campaign, pledging to donate 100,000 free smoothies to healthcare workers and first responders. As of the last week in March, 20,000 smoothies had been delivered across 20 states to support those fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. To coordinate a donation, the chain is inviting hospital teams, police forces, firefighters and other first responders to call their local Tropical Smoothie Cafe or visit the chain’s website.

Burrito boxes

With help from Grubhub, Chipotle says it will deliver free boxes of burritos to healthcare workers on the front lines during World Health Worker Week. To receive a box of 25 burritos, workers can register their office or hospital department, which must be located within 15 miles of a participating restaurant, though Chipotle’s website. The chain has said it will give away up to 100,000 burritos between April 6-10 as part of the promotion.

Strength in numbers

A group of Los Angeles restaurateurs and chefs have joined forces in Help Feed the Frontline LA, a program to provide two meals a day to 400-plus healthcare workers. Currently, the free meals are going to hospital staff at six area medical facilities: UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica, Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Providence Saint John’s Health Center, USC Medical Center and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The idea was hatched by local Los Angeles Unified School District parents, who were looking for a way to help the “healthcare heroes” who are exposed to coronavirus on a daily basis. The concerned parents then recruited well-known LA chef Brooke Williamson and enlisted nonprofit World Central Kitchen—an organization that provides meals in the wake of natural disasters. Together, they rallied chefs from notable restaurants such as Playa Provisions, Local Kitchen + Bar, Pacifique, Bacari PDR, M Cafe, Marmalade Cafe and Thyme Cafe. The program is funded through donations made to GoFundMe, with $75,000 already collected. The goal is to reach $3 million—enough to feed the healthcare workers for four weeks.

“The creation of Help Feed the Frontline LA helps keep our business up and running and our employees working, while allowing us to play a larger role in supporting the brave medical professionals who are making sacrifices each and every day,” Williamson said in a statement.

Fully baked ideas

Two bakery concepts are also reaching out to their communities. Great Harvest franchisees in various locations are supplying local food banks and school children with bread and other baked products. A Great Harvest franchise in Maple Grove, Minn., pledged to offer free bread and goodie bags to families in need during school closures.

maple grovePhotograph courtesy of Great Harvest

Bakery staff is also volunteering to make home deliveries for the elderly. La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles started a Frontline Meals Program for all first responders and essential frontline employees, including doctors, nurses and janitorial staff. Workers present a badge or proof of employment, and they can receive a free boxed meal with a sandwich, chips and cookie. 


Photograph courtesy of La Brea Bakery Cafe

Share a pizza

On March 30, National Doctors Day, Pieology launched its pizza care packages for the medical community. Each Pieology Care Pack includes four build-your-own personal pizzas, one cheese bread and one family-size shareable dessert for $50. Consumers are encouraged to send a pizza pack to show their appreciation for doctors, area medical professionals, first responders or friends and family members.



More from our partners