While the pandemic has ripped through the restaurant and hospitality industries particularly hard, it has also opened doors for unique collaborations and partnerships between chefs, restaurants, farmers, and mutual aid groups all over the city to survive winter while still serving the community.
From personalized grocery markets working with local farmers and chefs to community kitchens that have employed dozens of laid-off workers while serving pay-what-you-can meals, winter is less scarce and hopeless thanks to the many helping hands that have held Chicago together during isolation.
Since July, “love fridges” have taken over the city in colorful fashion, distributing food to those in need through mutual aid efforts and offering solutions to ending food scarcity and waste, which the pandemic has exacerbated, particularly for disadvantaged communities. The volunteer-run Love Fridge collective has created over 20 fridges (with an accompanying pantry) mostly around the South and West sides.
The collective is now on a mission to provide warm meals in partnership with local chefs and restaurants for winter with its new initiative Full Circle, which launched on Christmas Eve. Over the next few weeks, the first partners, private chef Chanell Hale and chef Meserete Wol of Awash Ethiopian Restaurant in Edgewater are stocking the fridges with 240 warm meals.
“The first thing I loved about what Love Fridge [volunteers] were doing is giving access and that’s a part of my mission — to create access in these different areas of Chicago that really could benefit from having colorful meals that were well-thought of,” says Hale, who plans to make 120 meals for various South Side love fridges.
The Englewood native, who now lives in West Loop, is a self-taught chef and in 2013, started her private catering company, Dreamyvents Catering. In 2017, she left her full-time job in social work at a mental health clinic to pursue her cooking passion and connect her professional background with community food outreach.
The pandemic gave her the opportunity to combine these two ideas, and she started the Feed the Kiddos Chi initiative, which distributed over 2,500 meals to children on the South and West sides in the summer. With help from the Promontory restaurant in Hyde Park, Hale and volunteers partnered with other mutual aid food distribution groups, public schools, and families to deliver meals as a way to check in with children and give them relief from pandemic-related news, gun violence trauma, and inadequate access to healthy food.
Hale says the Full Circle partnership pairs perfectly with her community service work and she’s glad to continue Feed the Kiddos through similar means that can still benefit kids and families she served in the summer.
“When the love fridges spread into the South Side communities, I was overjoyed,” she says. “It was a Christmas present for me.”
On Christmas Eve, Hale and her mother drove to the Englewood and South Shore fridges to deliver meals of chile salmon, smoked paprika roasted chicken, veggie stir fry, and tomato cream pasta. When she returned 12 hours later to drop off vegan options, all of the 60 meals were gone.
“I called my mom crying, like, ‘Mom, all the food is gone, they really needed it,’” she says.
The Full Circle initiative is looking to raise nearly $3,000 to be able to pay the chefs and restaurants who contribute meals. Currently, they are donating the meals for free.
Also providing food to the love fridges is the Community Kitchen program, which began in June as a response to COVID-19. In 2020, the program provided about 56,000 meals for free or at a pay-what-you-can price to essential workers, community centers, senior housing facilities, hospital workers, and families in need. It also has given work to nearly 30 cooks who would otherwise have none.
This year, cofounders Ed Marszewski, president of Marz Community Brewing Co., and chef Won Kim of Kimski in Bridgeport want to go even bigger in supporting the community with fresh weekly meals, especially after seeing the success the Community Kitchen has garnered and its financial support.
“The goal was to create an environment where it’s not a food line, you’re not waiting outside or getting a bag of groceries,” Marszewski says. “You come in whenever you want, order whatever you want, and then leave.”
This is what the team calls radical hospitality, he says, which patrons took some getting used to because the idea of walking into a restaurant and getting a free or affordable meal on your own terms is not normal. But the community kitchen’s mission was to “really go overboard in trying to make people feel comfortable in getting food,” he says, which has always been a dream of his since launching Marz, which is known to partner with community organizations for social good.
From now until April, the Community Kitchen and the Community Canteen, where the meals are made and can be picked up, plan to provide 3,600 to 4,600 meals a week, doubling the amount from last year. And with this increase comes more collaborations to help make and distribute the meals, as well as more Community Canteens, Marszewski says.
Mom’s Chicago, Kimski, DMen Tap, Wherewithall, Iyanze Bronze, and dozens of new local chefs, restaurants, food suppliers and mutual aid groups are coming together to serve meals like Kashmiri chile chicken, beef po’ boys, vegetarian soups, pozole, upside-down cake, and more on a rotating weekly basis.
“It’s this network of different chefs and colleagues within the industry constantly working to keep that income flowing within those circles,” he says. “It’s uniquely designed to make sure we employ chefs, cooks, and front-of-house workers to make these meals.”
Wherewithall in Avondale (from the owners of Michelin-starred Parachute) is transforming into a new Community Canteen from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Tuesday to Friday. Kimski, the flagship canteen, is open from 12 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturdays. Marszewski says more restaurants plan to transform into canteens to serve the demand and expand the initiative to different areas of the city.
Marz Brewing is also collaborating with Chinatown restaurant Triple Crown to sell alcohol since it lacks a liquor license. Goose Island Brewery is partnering with smaller businesses to sell products like gelato from Black Dog Gelato, a cheese plate by local cheesemonger Alisha Norris Jones, and a meat plate from Lakeview butcher shop Paulina Market.
These partnerships have helped struggling restaurants and those in the supply chain stay afloat while showcasing the industry’s resiliency and support that has come from adversity. When restaurants had to adapt to city pandemic regulations and new farmers market rules, Daisies in Logan Square pivoted to create an in-house market to assist farmers, vendors, and local chefs who were out of work.
Since launching the Sunday market in May, which has a rotating list of vendors that sell products without a booth fee, and changing the back room into the now-permanent market in August, Daisies owner and chef Joe Frillman says the pivot has saved the business and given work to nearly 20 staff.
“It has kept us sane and busy in a time that has been perpetually just never-ending and difficult for everyone,” Frillman says of the market.
In Evanston, Village Farmstand sprouted up in the summer as another personalized shopping experience that partners with 60 city chefs, vendors, and Illinois farmers. For winter, the grocery store is selling meal kits and goods made from the same produce and meats Village Farmstand offers to provide quick meal options to its nearly 400 customers, as well as education outreach about the products, says founder Matt Wechsler, a filmmaker who worked with farmer Marty Travis to bring Village Farmstand to life. He is proud to see how far the new business venture has come and plans to expand into the neighboring storefront.
“I never realized how hard it would be to try to organize a store with so many different suppliers,” Wechsler says. “But we’re continuing to be innovative in how we approach the technology side of it so we don’t define ourselves by the ease of distributing, but we define ourselves by the quality of what we offer.”
The new year has also begot collaborations as Bucktown’s TaKorea Cocina commandeered a food truck belonging to Giant in Logan Square. Giant owner Jason Vincent loaned the truck to TaKorea’s Robert Magiet so he could hand out meals to those experiencing homelessness. Magiet says he feels energized by the team up, and that helping the community has filled a void he always struggled to address. Words are spread via social media and email (email@example.com).
“Until the past month or so I never truly felt my life had meaning,” Magiet says.