As restaurants closed to dine-in customers across the city, Renee Gorham, the co-owner of the prolific restaurant group Toro Bravo, was looking for any way to keep the little staff she had left. “I started just seeking out other avenues to keep my staff employed,” Gorham says. “We turned Plaza del Toro into a community kitchen; we were giving out free meal kits.” Then, an organization called Frontline Foods reached out to them with an offer: Make 50 meals for health care workers, and we’ll pay you $20 per meal.
Frontline Foods, a new national nonprofit, is one of the many attempting to help both the restaurant market and health care workers. The organization uses donations to fund local restaurant workers, who deliver individually wrapped, free meals to hospitals for medical personnel. “The deal with the hospital workers’ food is that they’re going to be eating it throughout the 12-hour shift,” Gorham says. “We’re designing menus that work for them specifically.”
Frontline Foods started in the Bay Area, which has become fertile ground for similar organizations. Here in Portland, Google employee Nick Cain was watching his wife, a nurse at Providence Portland, come home from long shifts worrying about her immunocompromised patients. “It creates this whole level of stress on them; there’s no real playbook for the stress of this,” he says. “It’s what we’re all thinking about, but it adds a whole new level of stress when you work in a hospital caring for patients.” Cain connected with the team at Frontline Foods last week; since then, the organization has launched in 12 cities across the country, partnering with global food aid organization World Central Kitchen.
In Portland, a number of local restaurants have expressed interest in working with Frontline Foods. So far, restaurants like Top Burmese, Kachka, Sisters Deli, and Pine State Biscuits have either made or plan to make meals for hospital workers at OHSU or Providence’s COVID-19 testing sites. In general, Frontline is limited based on its amount of donations; it can only pay restaurants for meals if it has the money to do it. However, Cain says, with the new World Central Kitchen partnership, they should be getting a larger wave of tax-deductible donations to fund the project; the team has currently raised more than $30,000 for meals across Portland.
Some chefs are going outside larger organizations like Frontline Foods, getting funding directly from customers or through insurance company grants. The team at Dame Collective and Mexican spot Guero say Country Financial insurance agent Ben Weinstein offered a grant to restaurants to serve health care workers. Dame’s team, collaborating with their longtime pop-up-in-residence Estes, will drop off braised pork with polenta and greens at OHSU today, as well as squares of lasagna; they’re hoping to serve 200 meals over the next week or two.
Matta owner Richard Le and Jojo owner Justin Hintze served 188 Vietnamese egg salad sandwiches at OHSU last week, and Le and Gracie’s Apizza owner Craig Melillo are doing another round this week: The two chefs will roast chickens in Melillo’s pizza oven, turning them into 140 chicken salad sandwiches for workers at Providence St. Vincent and Good Samaritan. For them, the donations haven’t come through any particular organization — they’re just using what’s been sent to their Venmo accounts.
Le originally set aside the money to give out meals for restaurant workers and children, but when he started to realize he needed to close his food cart, he wanted to brainstorm another way to feed people in need. “I just watched that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver... and I saw that nurses are having to make their own masks to fucking protect themselves,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of support for their safety. Obviously Craig and I have no means along those lines, but we can feed them and find them gloves, a small gesture to build morale.”
Melillo is also making a number of pizzas for the workers at Providence Portland this week with vegan pizzaiolo Odie O’Connor of Baby Blue. For him, it’s not just about aid — it’s also an excuse to cook, something he’s missed since he decided to close his St. Johns pizzeria weeks ago. “This is what we do: We cook food and we feed people,” he says. “Life’s fucking boring right now, we might as well make them something good.”