In precoronavirus times, it was difficult to imagine FareStart being any better. The James Beard award-winning nonprofit has been an incredible force for good in Seattle, providing restaurant-industry job training to those who’ve experienced homelessness and poverty, creating opportunities and changing lives for almost 30 years now.

Maybe it’s the time that we’re in — a time in which all of our lives feel tenuous and have been constricted, a time in which having a job and a home and food is suddenly and so clearly something none of us should take for granted, a time when capitalism’s fundamental cracks have become dramatically apparent — but reading FareStart’s mission statement right now is making me cry. “Every individual has the opportunity to thrive in an equitable and just world. … We build relationships based on the belief that the past informs but does not dictate the future. … We treat everyone with dignity, regardless of background or differences. … We provide a community of belonging.” It’s just compassion — just love. But it’s so rarely laid out for those in need to have a chance to get their fill of.

And in the last month and a half, as Seattle has struggled to deal with the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic, FareStart stepped up in an incredible-in-the-sense-of-difficult-to-be-believed way, converting operations in record time to feed those most in need. At the helm of the restructuring was the leadership pair of chef Wayne Johnson and CEO Angela Dunleavy-Stowell.

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It was a heart-explodingly good match when FareStart got local legend/wonderful human Johnson, formerly of Andaluca, to head up culinary operations in 2016. Another coup of greatness happened in 2018, when Dunleavy-Stowell said goodbye to her private-sector role as CEO of Ethan Stowell Restaurants — 16 in number at that time, with $30 million in annual sales — to turn her formidable intelligence and energy to what she called her “dream job” running FareStart.

The team’s met challenges since, opening the restaurants Maslow’s and Community Table in South Lake Union with contributions from Amazon, then having to close them due to that neighborhood’s tepid reception of much beyond trucks and happy hours, foodwise. They’ve also nimbly rejiggered, turning those spaces into training grounds for catering work, while continuing with FareStart Restaurant and its popular Guest Chef Nights as well as two cafes.

Eric Olinsky, right, and FareStart’s head chef/vice president of culinary operations Wayne Johnson, center, are hard at work cooking up meals to feed those in need. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Eric Olinsky, right, and FareStart’s head chef/vice president of culinary operations Wayne Johnson, center, are hard at work cooking up meals to feed those in need. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, FareStart went into full hero mode. The agency’s first and only question was, chef Johnson says, “How could we be of help?” After serving our city’s most vulnerable communities for nearly three decades, he says, “It was just natural that we would just do that.” Some of FareStart’s programming already provided food to social services, shelters and schools, and with so many suddenly unemployed, the need to feed more people — a lot more people — was an emergency one.

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Dunleavy-Stowell got in contact with the city of Seattle and King County, while Johnson assessed resources, including four kitchens across Seattle — ones large enough to provide for social distancing workstations and make a lot of food. With the flagship restaurant closed down and catering jobs dried up, the obvious thing to FareStart was to keep on working, harder than ever. Front-of-house servers joined meal-prep lines, making boxed breakfasts and lunches, frozen and hot meals. FareStart chefs, Johnson says, “who can prepare all the way up to seriously gourmet meals did the switch and said, ‘We need to take care of people.’”

Work at the main FareStart kitchen at Seventh Avenue and Virginia Street split into two shifts — the first one starting at 4:30 a.m. — to increase meal production. Everyone at every kitchen started getting their temperature taken before work, with a sticker to show it. Stringent cleaning protocols were developed and enacted every two hours: bleach wipedowns of surfaces, doors, walk-ins, handles. Nonkitchen FareStart staff started working from home. “Knock on wood,” Johnson says, “we were on this right away, really quickly, and knock on wood again, we’ve had zero people that’ve been sick.”

Food donations started rolling in, sometimes literally — when chef Kevin Davis shuttered his nearby Blueacre and Zane + Wylie’s, he gave FareStart the two places’ unused product, which staff ran carts up the street to collect. Menu planning changed concomitantly: Johnson and his chef instructors Eric Klein and Eric Olinsky liken it to “playing ‘Iron Chef.’” When they got 16 pallets of chicken — “literally two tons,” Johnson says — from Food Lifeline, some new nutritious, delicious and not overcomplicated recipes were required. That two tons of bird became barbecued chicken salad, Chinese chicken salad, chipotle chicken salad and fajita chicken bowls; some went into frozen, reheatable chicken potpies, Alfredo and curry. “In terms of menu planning,” Johnson maintains, “I work with some of the greatest chefs in Seattle and would put them up against any chef on ‘Chopped.’”

Though he’s only in the FareStart kitchens as necessary in order to limit contact, Johnson says the mood is “kind of different.” He elaborates: “You’re thinking about who you’re going home to — some of us have older folks who live with us, our parents, and people carry that all day long.” Then, he observes, “There is that whole sense about ‘When’s it gonna be over?’” Meanwhile, social-distanced stations make conversations hard — staff would have to pretty much shout. But now, where it was deemed too distracting before, the staff can play music, taking turns who chooses it. Johnson says it helps with staying focused, “settling that side of your brain” — the worried side — “so you’re not thinking about it as much.”

“Everybody’s settling into this new normal,” Johnson says with pride.

That pride is not at all misplaced. At this writing, FareStart has provided close to 197,000 meals to those in need during the coronavirus crisis. And that’s with a cooking, prep and delivery staff of just 73 people getting food to 70 locations, including the Downtown Emergency Service Center, Plymouth Housing, the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County, and King County coronavirus quarantine sites. “It’s pretty crazy,” Johnson understates, “how it actually came together so quickly.” Then, more understatement: “It’s what we always do, feeding people.”

And as the coronavirus pandemic protracts and hunger grows, Johnson says, “The food banks are starting to really hurt,” with imminent danger of running out. So, naturally, FareStart is doing even more, looking to facilitate the production of up to 50,000 meals per day. One new partner has stepped in: the Seahawks, offering up CenturyLink Field’s kitchens, where in-house concessions company First & Goal Hospitality will use FareStart menus and know-how to make thousands more meals daily. Meanwhile, local Taylor Hoang Restaurants, which include District 1 Saigon in Redmond and the Pho Cyclo Cafés, is stepping up by providing warehouse space, transportation and more. And Seattle-based MOD Pizza is pitching in, adding pies to supplement FareStart’s meals going to King County shelters for people experiencing homelessness.

What FareStart is doing is phenomenal. The need is all too real. The time is right now. If you’re able, you can help at farestart.org/donate.

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