Shortly after Philadelphia restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of COVID-19, six friends came up with a two-pronged way to help: raise money online to pay local restaurants to cook meals for frontline health care workers. In less than a month, their Fuel the Fight campaign raised $180,000 and helped support three dozen local restaurants.
Fuel the Fight’s primary tool is fundraising platform GoFundMe, with 100 percent of the donations going directly to restaurants to cook and deliver meals to hospitals. “Health care workers aren’t thinking about what they’re going to eat for lunch,” says Fuel the Fight organizer Alex Penza. “Their plate is already full enough.”
Penza and his co-organizers take the donations and pay restaurants in Philadelphia and the suburbs for catering orders that feed anywhere from 20 to 200 people. The restaurants range from casual counter-service spots like Cristina Martinez’s South Philly Barbacoa and Mike Strauss’s Mike’s BBQ to sushi destination Bluefin, acclaimed new American BYOB Cadence, and Jose Garces’s popular group of eateries.
The Fuel the Fight team cold-calls the restaurants to ask if they want to participate. Many chefs try to help out without getting paid, the Fuel the Fight team says, but the organization insists on giving the restaurants money.
“Almost every restaurant offers up their time and resources [for free], but we politely decline. The goal is not just to show appreciation to the health care workers, but also to provide the funds so desperately needed in the restaurant community,” says Fuel the Fight’s Mike Mayock.
With dining rooms closed, Garces had to lay off most of his restaurants’ employees, but working with Fuel the Fight to provide lunches and dinners to health care workers for the past three weeks has helped him keep a few dozen people on the payroll. “Laying off 600 people was a big pill to swallow,” Garces says. “As people are experiencing hardships, trying to get them some assistance is top of mind everyday. When Fuel the Fight reached out, I loved the idea of serving frontline workers in hospitals and utilizing restaurants to deliver the food.”
Similar efforts have popped up in cities around the country. Most were started by chefs or existing nonprofits. Fuel the Fight is unusual in that its founders have no connection to the hospitality industry. “Besides living here for our whole lives, we really don’t have any formal ties to the restaurant community,” Mayock says. “We’re a group of friends from the startup tech and finance world and wanted to figure out a way that we could help.”
Thanks to a social media assist from former Philadelphia Eagle Chris Long, a tweet by CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, and local news stories, their initial $50,000 goal was quickly met. “There’s been an outpouring of support and money keeps flooding in,” Penza says. The group recently partnered with Frontline Foods in order to accept tax deductible donations from corporations, generating an additional $100,000 on top of the money raised through GoFundMe.
Restaurants working with Fuel the Fight have delivered 4,000 meals to 19 hospitals in the Philly region since mid-March. “We’ll keep doing it until funds run out,” Penza says. He and his co-organizers shared its organizational playbook with friends in other cities, who have set up their own local Fuel the Fight groups and collectively raised another $115,000.
Since Fuel the Fight kicked off last month, when the novel coronavirus pandemic started to hit Philly hard, restaurants throughout the city launched similar projects designed to feed health care workers.
Next to the Jefferson Health campus in Center City, Crunchik’n is working with Fuel the Fight while also running its own fundraiser to feed healthcare workers, with a pledge to match the first $2,000 raised. Owner Jen Choi, who worked in public health before turning to the food world, says the combination has let her keep on four employees at her small Korean eatery, which is open for takeout and delivery.
Choi had noticed a big dip in lunchtime orders from Jefferson employees, so she sent $700 worth of food to the ER earlier this week. “It was a wild morning,” Choi says. “Making food for 70 people and then opening for lunch service.”
Since the beginning of April, Pat’s King of Steaks has donated hundreds of cheesesteaks to area hospitals. Pat’s also delivered Philly’s signature sandwich to doctors and nurses working at New York and Maryland hospitals.
Dock Street, which has remained open for takeout from its West Philly and Point Breeze locations, is encouraging customers to help them send pizzas to hospitals and homeless shelters by donating $20. The company is a matching a portion of donations: Since late March, it’s sent 120 pizzas to hospitals in Philadelphia and on the Main Line.
In the Italian Market, buzzy Thai BYOB Kalaya began bringing meals to Presbyterian and Einstein medical centers this week. “We’re using our own funds,” Kalaya’s chef-owner Nok Suntaranon says about her restaurant’s efforts to feed health care workers. “I took myself off payroll, but my staff is still getting paid to work five days a week.”
Suntaranon plans to continue cooking big batches of nutritious meals that cost less than $10 a person to make and donating them to hospitals. “We’re not here to make money during this time,” she says. “We’re just here to stay afloat.”