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Photograph: Time Out/ Ali Garber

These restaurants are offering free or affordable meals to those out of work

Emma Orlow
Written by
Emma Orlow

It's been one of the most heartbreaking periods for the hospitality industry to date with reports that millions of restaurant jobs could disappear in America due to coronavirus-related shutdowns. In New York alone, 2,000 workers were let go from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group—which encompasses heavy-hitters such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Daily Provisions, among 17 others in his portfolio—in efforts to flatten the curve by helping customers and workers alike stay safe. Other major hospitality groups have followed suit. For an industry with a remarkably high number of workers who have no healthcare, now thousands of New Yorkers are suddenly unemployed or furloughed. The staggering number of workers let go all within the same time period contributed to the government’s employment site crashing because of unprecedented traffic and it prevented workers from receiving their benefits.

But this period has also seen an outpour of community support and relief efforts—still accomplished through appropriate levels of social distancing. In fact, a few restaurants and bars have made it their duty to provide free or affordable meals to newly-disenfranchised workforce. 

With the support of liquor brands including Bacardi, Altos Tequila and Glenlivet, Williamsburg’s Donna, consistently named one of the best bars in Brooklyn, has been offering free meals from its to-go window. Furloughed hospitality workers in need just have to say the secret passcode, “High Spirits," and the bar is offering them tacos, quesadillas and burritos with a Topo Chico.

In nearby Greenpoint, Asian-fusion restaurant Baoburg is offering “survival meals," where cash-only pick-up dishes are priced at an affordable $5. Meanwhile, in Manhattan’s Chinatown, a neighborhood that is particularly struggling for business amidst racist associations with virus as a "Chinese virus," Golden Diner has begun to offer what they’re calling, their “Happy Meals,” daily-changing $7 versions of dishes, more than half-the-price of what an entree might usually cost at the restaurant. 

Starting on Thursday, March 26th, Prospect Heights’s hit Olmsted will transform into a food bank, offering free meals. As the restaurant notes on its Instagram account, they’re currently looking for donations, such as toilet paper and toothpaste, noting that the transformation of the fine dining establishment could last “a week” or “months.” Also in partnership with Olmsted, Gertie will also transform into a relief center, announcing on social media that "for any restaurant worker who has been laid off or has had a significant reduction in hours and/ or pay. We are offering help for those in dire need of food and supplies." 

Celebrity chef José Andrés, known for his immense efforts during times of crisis, has transformed his sprawling Hudson Yards-based Spanish food hall, Mercado Little Spain, into a to-go-only “community kitchen,”  offering meals as low as $2.

In many cases, however, many of the people that could benefit from these services live too far from the wealthier areas with restaurants that have become community kitchens unless they drive, take long walks or potentially put themselves at risk via public transportation. And many older folks who could use these services likely will not be checking daily Instagram posts, where most of this fast-changing information is announced. But those hospitality workers within range and access to knowledge of these services will be a tremendous help in providing free and affordable options while the job market remains wholly uncertain. 

At a restaurant we reviewed earlier this year, Crown Heights’s Tamra Teahouse, has been offering bulk orders of its dishes, perfect for freezing or sharing with the family at extremely affordable rates, for a community already characterized by an equitable food system. Also in Crown Heights, The Bergen will offer free bagged lunches and dinners out of its casual to-go spot. And at Sol Sips in Bushwick, which is known for its sliding scale-style brunches and efforts to make vegan food accessible to everyone, the meal kits will be delivered with a similar pay-what-you-can model. 

If you prefer to cook on your own, there are many restaurants that are temporarily transforming into bodegas that are worth checking out. 

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