Low-wage, back-of-house restaurant workers are among those who have been hardest hit as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced restaurants to shutter. Tens of thousands have been laid off—including undocumented workers who can’t apply for unemployment benefits. In response, many in the hospitality industry have been quick to offer them aid in the form of free meals and groceries. Now Rick Bayless is joining in the effort, partnering with the Rosemont-based foodservice distributor US Foods to provide newly unemployed workers with money and new jobs.
“Many of these workers can’t apply for benefits. Now, without income, they can become destitute,” said Martin Cabrera, US Foods’s director of marketing.
On Monday, Bayless and US Foods launched a program that is paying 15 laid-off restaurant workers to twice a week sort through the groceries that Bayless’s Frontera Restaurants group purchases from US Foods. An anonymous donor provided $250,000 which was used to purchase food from US Foods. Those workers organize the groceries into boxes that are subsequently distributed to restaurants across Chicago—and then to each restaurant’s laid-off employees. According to Bayless, 800 of these boxes will be made each week. The list of the program’s recipients is growing; it so far includes Antique Taco, Carnitas Uruapan, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Rome’s Joy Catering, and Lula Café.
The seeds for the program were planted last Friday, when US Foods made what Cabrera calls a one-time food donation to Bayless’s Frontera Restaurants, earmarked for their laid-off workers. Bayless and US Foods then immediately decided to scale up the effort to be a more lasting and far-reaching one.
Bayless has been active throughout the coronavirus pandemic, working together with other Chicago chefs as the city’s independent restaurants have united to cope with the crisis. For example, he’s participated in social media campaigns advocating for government aid to restaurants; he was among those who gathered in Bucktown to hear Gov. Pritzker give his executive order on March 15 that closed restaurant dining rooms. On Monday, he released a video on social media in which he talked about the program’s efforts to help laid-off industry workers.
“The people who typically make your favorite food and offer you all of that generous hospitality are some of the most vulnerable people in our workforce,” Bayless said. “These are not the people with the big savings accounts to weather this type of storm.”
With an anonymous donor's $250,000 gift, we are: buying US Foods by the truckload hiring 15 of our laid-off restaurant workers to sort grocery boxes distributing groceries to employees at our Frontera Grill restaurants ✌️ partnering with chefs throughout Chicago to pick up grocery boxes for their staffs. all in this together.Posted by Chef Rick Bayless on Monday, March 30, 2020
Cabrera estimates that the program can run for eight to ten weeks with the funds already raised. Efforts to raise further funding to extend it have “already been in place,” he said. “We’ve reached out to other foundations. This is not going to end in three weeks.”
As the crisis continues, “we’re going to see a lot of restaurants going under,” Cabrera added. “There’s going to be a lot of need. So, we’re trying to keep the momentum going and are reaching out to foundations and manufacturers that we buy from. This is a time that’s about helping people most in need — the invisible people.”