Chicago Restaurants Are Turning to Philanthropy to Help Staff, Community

With legislators slow to react, some of the city's best eateries are taking matters into their own hands

adrienne lo abe conlon fat rice
Abe Conlon and Adrienne Lo of the Fat Rice
Maria Ponce

With cities around the nation going into some form of lockdown to help keep citizens safe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants, bars and cafes have had to eliminate in-restaurant dining. A number of businesses have turned their focus to delivery and takeout, keeping some staff employed, but more have resorted to layoffs. From this, many restaurateurs have launched GoFundMe campaigns or added virtual tip jars to raise money for staff in need. Others, however, have instead decided to provide free or low-cost meals (and, in some cases, financial assistance) to their employees as well as customers. 

Earlier this week, Fat Rice owners Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo moved away from delivery or take out to create upwards of 400 meal kits, offered at whatever price people could afford to pay. In launching the Fat Rice Community Relief Kitchen, the partners moved to help their staff, other restaurant workers and Fat Rice customers to bring fresh meals home while staying at a safe distance. 

“People need to be home and self-quarantine themselves to help flatten this curve; that’s our mission,” Lo says. “We had these resources and knew all these industry people just lost their jobs. We wanted them to get some food for whatever they could afford. This is our part to help.”

Each kit, which may include tofu and vegetable soup, pork meatloaf with mushrooms, and marinated chicken thighs with vegetables, is intended to supply three meals to two people and help stock their refrigerators. People sign up for a kit online at the new Relief Kitchen website, pay what they can (minimum of $0.50 — though some have donated $250) and pick it up on the Fat Rice patio.

“We’re trying to figure out how to help employees who are laid off and not necessarily figure out how to make revenue, at least for now,” Conlon says. 

Related: How 14 Chicago Restaurants Are Adapting in the Face of Coronavirus

The pair isn’t alone in their altruistic endeavors. Andersonville restaurant Vincent gave out free packaged meals to restaurant workers and local residents on May 18. Roka Akor will contribute $20 from every $100 in gift cards sold to an employee relief fund it set up. Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits owner Michael Ciapciak is matching 20 percent of gift card sales sold, 100 percent of which will support his staff. Uptown vegan restaurants Kalish and Sam & Gertie’s are giving restaurant workers free dinner for pickup on March 20, and Chef Carlos Gaytan is preparing daily meals at River North’s Tzuco for his staff and their families. 

Restaurants like Gibsons Group (which will also compensate all its employees through the end of March), Maple & Ash, etta and AJ Hudson’s Public House are giving complimentary daily meals and/or care packages to staff — and some for families — each day. And the 16” on Center restaurant group, including Hyde Park’s Promontory and Pilsen’s Dusek’s Board & Beer, is offering Family Meals To-Go — pre-packaged carryout meals for restaurant workers and Chicagoans — for whatever they can afford to pay.

fat rice relief kitchen
A meal kit from the Fat Rice Community Relief Kitchen (Fat Rice/Facebook)

While many restaurants are just now scrambling to find solutions to assist their employees and community, Barrel Aged Hospitality owners Art and Tyler Mendoza, who own four restaurants including Slightly Toasted and Asadito, saw the writing on the wall two weeks before Gov. J.B. Pritzker mandated all restaurants to close to the public. 

“We started contacting our suppliers and let them know our plan to supply staff with groceries that can last about a week for two people,” says Art Mendoza. “Our chef team came up with simple bases — dry pastas, oatmeal, beans, canned soup, veggies, ground beef and chicken — so they could make simple meals.” 

In addition to committing to at least five weeks of meal kits, which also include toilet paper, the Mendozas are working with their attorney to offer a weekly stipend to each of their 73 employees that will help them without interfering with unemployment benefits. 

“We know we have a number of weeks to keep them afloat,” Art Mendoza says. “Yet like everyone else, we are hoping for some sense of normalcy in a few weeks.”

Don’t we all.


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