After Gov. Kate Brown announced new social distancing measures that banned onsite dining, a wave of mass layoffs and furloughs hit Oregon’s economy. So when Matta owner Richard Le watched countless Portland restaurant workers lose their jobs Monday — including some of his own employees — he decided to do what he could: serve meals for free.
Starting Wednesday morning, he began serving free chao ga, a Vietnamese congee-style rice porridge with braised chicken thighs, from his Alberta Street cart, for zero cost to restaurant workers and other Oregonians who lost jobs. For kids, he’s been giving away chicken and rice, with pandan doughnut holes for dessert. He’ll close up today at 4 p.m., but tomorrow, he plans to come back and do it all again, including dinner service. He plans to do it as long as he can, as long as he can afford to.
Le was 19 during the 2008 recession. He was working for the City of San José, and had his hours cut significantly. “I was basically out in the streets. I was living in my car for a bit, crashing on my friend’s couch,” he remembers. “I know what it’s like to be broke... Industry folks, they just went out and got a job, it’s not their fault their restaurants closed.”
Le is not the only one giving away food this week. Down in Southeast Portland, his friend Justin Hintze, the owner of Jojo food truck, started giving away free fried chicken sandwiches and burgers to restaurant workers and kids; he’s since opened up the offer to all diners, no questions asked. Yesterday, Han Hwang, the owner of Kim Jong Grillin, started giving away free meals to unemployed restaurant workers, even driving his popular “bibim boxes” and kimchi jjigae to diners’ doorsteps. And across the river, the team at Southern restaurant the Waiting Room has started delivering half-chickens and banana cream pies to families of four around the city.
For Kyle Rourke, the chef and owner of the Waiting Room, giving away food isn’t solely about the charitable aspect; it also makes practical sense. “The last thing you want to do in a restaurant is throw away food,” he says. “If people aren’t ordering it, it needs to go to people who need it.”
To start, Rourke has been taking orders as people have been calling and emailing him, but down the line, he wants to partner with a charitable organization to help get more meals out to people in need. He’s starting with the things he needs to serve as quickly as possible, but next week, he plans to dig through the freezer, maybe yanking out the half-rack of ribs in there for meals. Ideally, he’d like to at least give one meal out for every meal he sells. “It’s about using the space I have and the tools I have to help,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to shut this place out and do nothing when we can do something.”
Yesterday, Troy MacLarty, the owner of Portland’s two Bollywood Theater locations, packaged up all the prepared, perishable food they had and gave it all away in a two-hour window; plastic containers of paneer and dal were sitting on almost every surface of the restaurant’s SE Division location. Visitors lined up outside the restaurant and picked up food by the pint- and quart-full, until only cubes of paneer were left. MacLarty says he’s guessing around 400 people stopped by the restaurant, where they gave away around $25,000 worth of food. “We had a line — probably a couple of hundred people — but the line was super long because they were five feet apart,” MacLarty says, with a laugh. “This hit so fast, and we just had so much food. We gave as much as we could to our staff, but it was going to be harder to figure out who [else] to give it to.” Irving Street Kitchen, the Pearl District Southern restaurant, is following MacLarty’s model, opening up the restaurant from 5 to 6:30 p.m. tonight with pints of food for those in need to take home.
“No one is going to take restaurants for granted for a while,” MacLarty says. “People are going to be really excited when the time comes.”
While restaurants are giving out food to avoid food waste, food carts — which, as businesses that can operate without dine-in customers, do not have to close under Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate — are operating off their own funds and pools of donations, coming in, in many cases, through Venmo. As of this morning, Hintze had already raised around $7,000 to donate food to the general public; Le has raised around $2,000 so far. The two of them plan to continue serving free food until they can’t. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what the response was going to be like, it’s been great to see the community to get together and put our shit aside,” Le says. “Nobody chose this epidemic. We’re doing the right thing.”
Where to Find Free Meals
The Waiting Room
How: Email email@example.com or call (503) 477-4380
Any restrictions? None; currently just based on honor system
Where: Pickup is available at 2327 NW Kearney Street, but orders are available for delivery
When: Taking orders from 2 to 8:30 p.m.
How: Order takeout directly from the cart via the free menu
Any restrictions? The menu has an option for “industry folks” and “kids,” though Le says meals are available for anyone in need; available based on honor system
Where: 1533 NE Alberta St
When: Check Instagram for full hours; the cart is only available for lunch Wednesday, extending to dinner on Thursday, March 19.
Kim Jong Grillin
How: Customers in need are encouraged to call in orders to (503) 929-0522, for delivery or pickup
Any restrictions? Meals are set aside for those who “lost their jobs or don’t have the means,” but this is based on the honor system.
Where: 4606 SE Division Street
When: Starting at 11:30 a.m. until sold out
Jojo Food Truck
How: Order directly from the truck, and pick up food once the team has closed the takeout window. The Jojo team is asking all customers to maintain six feet of distance between each other.
Any restrictions? None
Where: 3582 SE Powell Blvd
When: Noon to sold out
Irving Street Kitchen
How: Arrive at the restaurant
Any restrictions? The food is set aside “for restaurant workers and those in need,” but is based on the honor system
Where: 701 NW 13th Avenue
When: 5 to 6:30 p.m. on March 18
• Nonprofits that offer free meals in Portland [EPDX]
• How to sign up for SNAP [Multnomah County]
• How Coronavirus Is Impacting the Portland Restaurant World [EPDX]