Last week, the community rallied around Erica Castro and Pablo Sanchez to keep Gyros Planet & Taqueria open, raising over $60,000 in about 48 hours. When any small business closes, the loss is felt by the owners, their employees, and their customers. But Gyros Planet & Taqueria was not just any small business.
Ms. Castro and Mr. Sanchez are part of an ecosystem comprised of Evanston restaurants and community organizations that sprang into action a year ago to keep restaurant employees working, their suppliers supplying, and customers buying, while simultaneously addressing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Collectively, the restaurants have prepared and delivered tens of thousands of meals in the past 12 months.
Before March 2020, “sheltering in place” and “flattening the curve” were unfamiliar concepts to most Americans. When Governor JB Pritzker announced a stay-at-home order, communities got an instant education in what it meant to be an “essential worker”: essential workers provide food and healthcare, keep the lights on and the internet up, and transport other essential workers to and from their workplaces.
Evanston restaurant owners not only continued to work, they also saw firsthand the immediate impact of the COVID-19 crisis which divided workers into three groups: essential workers who would continue to go to work, putting themselves and their households at greater risk of infection, those who could do their jobs from home offices, and those who could no longer work. The restaurants went to work feeding their neighbors who were going hungry.
Ms. Castro reached out to the Latinx community offering free meals and was soon preparing 100 lunches a day. Chef Q Ibraheem started taking meals to eight families she knew through children in her programs at Y.O.U. and Family Focus. She doubled her deliveries within the first week and then started making a regular pilgrimage to the Chicago Gardeneers to collect about 175 pounds of fresh vegetables every week for the healthy meals she prepared for the community.
Jennifer Eason of Jennifer’s Edibles did not expect her restaurant to survive the shutdown, so she and her brother decided to use up their remaining inventory feeding seniors in the community. “We got calls from friends out of state who asked if we could take meals to their parents.” Their modest plan to feed five seniors a day for as long as they could exploded. “It was never five. It was about 18 people the first day. We did that for a couple of days and then people in the community heard about it and started sending donations and said, ‘Feed as many as you can.’”
It was not too long before Rebecca Cacayuran of the Evanston Community Foundation heard about the efforts of different chefs around town. She reached out to many of them with an offer of to provide short-term emergency funding for meals: initially for a few weeks and ultimately for several months.
With ECF’s support, the Easons fed 200 seniors, seven days a week, for about four months. They also partnered with Clarence and Wendy Weaver of C&W Market to provide groceries and toiletries. “We put out a call out for volunteers or delivery drivers and Evanston showed up in record numbers. It was amazing. We wound up with about 100 volunteers and they delivered food every single day.”
One year later, the Easons are still feeding 55 people five days a week and have created a non-profit to sustain the work into the future, Jennifer’s Edibles Feeds the Community. “The pandemic just revealed the cracks in how we do things. Most of this was here already and once the stay-at-home order was lifted, it was evident.”
Jen Kouba, from Connections for the Homeless, agrees. “The pandemic has shone a light on homelessness and it’s allowed us come together in really meaningful and profound ways.” Connections had to pivot from housing people in congregate shelters to providing temporary housing at local hotels. No longer able to cook meals on site at the shelter, they purchased three discounted meals a day from restaurants and delivered them to residents. Ms. Kouba estimates that since the beginning of the pandemic, they have worked with more than 30 restaurants, spent about $600,000 and distributed 135,000 meals.
The local restaurant industry offers a perfect illustration of economic interdependence in a community. Every restaurant employs a number of people to prepare food, serve, and clean up. Their suppliers continually replenish a perishable inventory. And they depend on customers who dine in or carry out.
Supporting local restaurants helps keep this economic engine running, but the ongoing need for social distancing measures has severely curtailed dining out. The Evanston Chamber of Commerce, the City of Evanston, and other local groups have encouraged people who can afford it, to order out once or twice a week. Many restaurant owners have dipped into their personal savings while also maintaining active GoFundMe campaigns or making general appeals for community support. The opportunity to work with organizations like Connections for the Homeless, the Evanston Community Foundation and Interfaith Action has extended a lifeline to the restaurants and to the people these organizations serve.
Interfaith Action of Evanston and their member congregations have hosted daily soup kitchens for years, with teams of people who plan meals, buy food, cook, and serve. With COVID-19 social distancing guidelines in place, they began purchasing meals from local restaurants instead. “All the Soup Kitchen Coordinators work together every day so that they coordinate what they’re serving and offer a variety of meals,” IAE Director Sue Murphy explained.
Beth Emet hosts the Soup Kitchen every Wednesday and Leslie Shulruff described the daily communication with the other coordinators as “the pandemic silver lining”. “The Evanston restaurants and caterers have been incredibly generous,” she said. Ms. Shulruff picks up leftover bread and pastries at the end of the day from Hewn Bakery and orders regularly from AOK Gourmet and Dave’s New Kitchen.
“We like to keep our volunteers involved. We get our meals in trays and purchase our own containers. We’ll have them package desserts, the bread, and portion meals into containers and bag it all up. We also have volunteers making lunches and salads. Our mission is to feed people and give people an option to volunteer.”
Ms. Shulruff and Ms. Murphy both noted that everyone misses the socializing. “The Soup Kitchen guests and volunteers really miss being able to eat inside. It was partly social, not just food.” Ms. Murphy hopes they will begin serving inside again soon, but added, “I think they will continue to use the local restaurants for quite a while.”
Maria Russell of Cross Rhodes said that since the beginning of the pandemic she’s been supplying meals regularly for the Soup Kitchens and Connections for the Homeless, sometimes at the request of the organization and sometimes for individuals who volunteer to provide prepackaged meals.
Evanstonian Ann Weatherhead has asked Ms. Russell to prepare meals for Connections a few times. “For the amount of money that I might spend on two people going out to dinner with a bottle of wine, I can feed 30 people. It makes me feel like I can contribute something.” She noted that Ms. Russell provides a really nice meal and wants to make sure she’s not sending the same thing twice.
Ms. Russell took over the family restaurant in 2012 and has been able to retain her staff of ten. “I’ve been able to keep everyone except for one employee who worked lunches as a server. He’s not comfortable working. Everyone that my dad started out with, I’ve been able to retain.
“Evanston has really come together as a community. It’s just been amazing,” she added.
Heather Bublick of Soul and Smoke said, “we’ve added a few staff members. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to let anyone go.” They are primarily a catering company that, because of the pandemic, has “morphed into a to go restaurant, seven days a week, lunch and dinner.”
Early in the pandemic they were concerned about getting meals to kids in need and put out a call for people to sponsor up to 30 meals a day. By the second day, they were doing 150 meals and then the Evanston Community Foundation sponsored 300 meals a day for District 65 families. Ms. Bublick says that as a caterer, it was easy to adapt to the high volume. “The hardest thing was making everything individual portions.”
As the one-year anniversary of the initial shelter in place order nears, a lot of the programs that have funded this ecosystem are starting to dry up. A number of Evanston Community Foundation grants finished in December and others run through the end of this month. “There’s definitely some donor fatigue. We still get donations here and there and we still put out meals every day,” Ms. Bublick noted.
Connections for the Homeless continues to provide temporary housing for approximately 60 people and currently partners with 12 restaurants that provide 210 meals each week. Soul and Smoke delivers meals every Monday. Every Wednesday and some Sundays, Larry and Jean Murphy deliver meals from their Yo Fresh Cafe on Chicago Avenue.
Chef Q said she is proud of what the restaurants are doing and how they’re all working together now.
“Someone in the community will call and say, ‘hey, I’ve got extra gloves. Do you need any?’ When Shinsen announced they were doing community meals, we took them cases of to-go boxes. Alan from Viet Nom Nom just called and asked me if I needed plastic utensils.” Chef Q also provided some food for Nakorn to prepare for delivery by Evanston Latinos.
“I’ve never been so proud to be in this community. I didn’t know all these people before,” she said.