WASHINGTON — With a sack of fresh produce and a hot meal in hand, Kem Ramirez can’t fathom how a restaurant can just give away food to hospitality workers who find themselves unemployed as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on their industry. Ramirez knows the food business works perhaps better than most: He’s the proprietor of the Freshmobile, which finds itself without a place to sell frozen limeade drinks now that Eastern Market in Washington has shut down weekend operations to food vendors.
“I can’t believe people are giving away free food. I can’t believe it. I’m like, ‘Who are these people? Why are they doing this?'” says Ramirez, as he stands outside Succotash in downtown Washington. “I have a hard time processing that people are just giving away food for free.”
Ramirez is one of thousands from a crippled hospitality industry taking advantage of the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, a multi-city effort to support hourly employees (and even out-of-work owners) who are struggling to make ends meet as their income streams run dry. The program is a joint project from Marker’s Mark and the Lee Initiative, a charitable organization formed by Edward Lee, the chef behind such restaurants as Succotash in Washington and 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky.
As the coronavirus shuts down more restaurants across the country, pushing millions of hourly earners into an unemployment system that’s not ready to handle them, the Lee Initiative has added to its mission: The organization no longer just works to diversify the industry; it’s feeding the industry. The Restaurant Workers Relief Program is now in Washington, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Louisville, New York and Seattle, with more cities in the works. Lee told The Washington Post he hopes to be in 15 cities by week’s end.
“Almost 90% of our lives is working in fancy food and arguing about the qualities of a sauce, but it’s times like this when you realize that food is essential,” Lee said. “Someone has to distribute it, deliver it, make it. There are people whose fridges are half-empty, and they’re saying, ‘I have enough food for three days, and I’ve got $400 in my bank account.’ There’s a reality of people going hungry.”
The Restaurant Workers Relief Program is one of many ways the industry has been circling the wagons to protect and support its own. The Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation has launched an emergency relief fund. One Fair Wage has created a workers support fund. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is providing both direct financial assistance and access to numerous resources. More relief efforts are being added by the day, both large and small.
But down on F Street in Washington, where a small crew of volunteers and Succotash employees pass out food and household supplies, the huge need facing unemployed restaurant workers becomes painfully real. Inside the historic restaurant, with its soaring ceilings and Greek revival architecture, the tables normally reserved for diners are now covered with the kind of products that Americans take for granted: diapers, baby food, pet food, soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent and, of course, toilet paper.
“That’s gold right there,” says Demitian Gilbert, general manager of Succotash, pointing out a box of toilet paper on the floor.