It’s a little after 11 a.m. on a Tuesday at Green Lake’s Frelard Tamales. The window is unusually quiet; there’s just the sound of Javier Hernández rustling dozens and dozens of paper bags, each filled with a turkey sandwich, a packet of Goldfish crackers and a box of Honest juice.
Hernández is usually telling jokes and trying to make everyone laugh. But on this day, he wears a look of determination. Hernandez and his wife, Eva Sahagún, are packing free sack lunches for children who are out of school, ready to pick up between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The couple and their son, Osbaldo Hernández (who owns the restaurant with his husband, Dennis Ramey), came up with the idea to try to help the thousands of children around Seattle who depend on schools for meals.
Hundreds of restaurants in Washington state have seen a significant drop in business since March 16, when Gov. Jay Inslee ordered restaurants to shut their dining rooms and go to takeout/delivery only in an effort to curb the coronavirus spread. Thousands of food services employees have either lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced, and restaurant owners are struggling to make ends meet. Yet, despite these trying times, many restaurateurs have started initiatives like Frelard Tamales’ “free lunch for kids” program to help others in their time of need.
The tamale shop has been at it for a couple of weeks now. Earlier this month, they gave away roughly 180 tamales to patient-facing health care workers before switching their focus to hungry schoolchildren.
Osbaldo — who is self-quarantining as he recovers from a cold, as of this report — said his staff’s obligation to do something came from a desire to repay the community for the kindness and support the restaurant received when they were starting out.
Osbaldo says he used to meet customers in the parking lot of Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church in Ballard and exchange tamales for cash.
“It felt so weird, but that is our origin, and the fact that people trusted us and embraced us to become now a brick-and-mortar, this is one way that we can give back. It’s all about giving back to the community that helped us become what we are,” Osbaldo says.
Javier serves as unofficial handyman for Frelard Tamales, but since being laid off from his full-time job at Bellevue’s convention center, Meydenbauer Center, following the statewide ban on large events, he’s been working at the restaurant, packing the lunches that will go to kids.
“If the moms just want to come, they can, no questions. If they say they have two kids, we’ll give you two meals,” Javier says.
Osbaldo says they have enough supplies to give up to 200 meals per day. In the first day, they distributed 68.
“It was definitely less than we were hoping, but we’re glad that folks did take advantage of it,” he says.
Sahagún says they will continue providing free meals for kids for as long as is necessary, “while we can.”
“It’s a cost, but it’s not a burden,” Osbaldo says.
He also says he’s had requests from local food banks and women’s shelters for donations, and that’s where they’ll send any unclaimed meals.
Frelard Tamales isn’t the only business working to feed the Greater Seattle community during a difficult time. Some, such as Cafe Flora and Renee Erickson’s Sea Creatures restaurant group, are providing meals and groceries to staff and their families. Others are packing up thousands of individual meals for hospital workers daily and hand-delivering free meals to homebound seniors.
Here’s a look at a few other Seattle-area restaurants sacrificing profit to help their communities.
Multiple locations: 319 N.E. Thornton Place, Seattle, 206- 584-2983, kizuki.com; 4203 S.W. Alaska St., Seattle, 206-584-2998; 4502 S. Steele St., Mall Suite 501A, Tacoma, 253-650-0639
Any school-aged child can get a free rice bowl with pork or chicken at one of the many Kizuki Ramen locations around the Seattle area, including Northgate, West Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue. Rice bowls are served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day.
Nuri Aydinel, Kizuki co-founder and partner, said the restaurant group served about 600 children within the first three days of the program’s inception. Aydinel says Kizuki hopes to have served about 5,000 children by this week.
Kizuki has also expanded the free lunch program to its restaurants in Chicago and Portland. They plan to continue the program for “as long as schools are closed.”
“Our goal is to reach the people and help the people. It’s been a great motivator, to be honest. We feel like we’re helping the community,” Aydinel said.
2524 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle, 206-708-6871, musangseattle.com
Right after Inslee announced the closure of all restaurant dining rooms, Musang owner Melissa Miranda shifted to takeout orders to make up for the lost revenue. But this pivot didn’t feel right when there is a crisis much bigger than her stack of bills, she said.
With schools closed, where will elementary school students on free lunch eat? How will families stock their pantries when food banks are depleted?
So last week, Miranda converted Beacon Hill’s Musang into a “Community Kitchen,” where she offers free Filipino beef stew mechado and other comfort food to laid-off workers and families in need — all to-go orders, of course.
For crowd-control purposes, and to ensure there was no line and that customers practiced proper social distancing, customers must arrange a pick-up time.
In addition to giving free meals, Musang hands out grocery bags of donated pasta, bread and veggies.
Businesses and local residents have heard Miranda’s plea for help and responded by donating more than $22,000 so she can pay her kitchen staff and buy food to keep her mission going.
“We have been serving 150 people a day,” she said.
The London Plane
300 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle, 206-624-1374, thelondonplaneseattle.com
For a little more than a week beginning March 18, Pioneer Square restaurant The London Plane has cooked and delivered 1,600 meals to UW health care staff every day.
Co-owner Katherine Anderson said an old friend who is a nurse practitioner contacted her to ask if they could help feed health care workers. Within 48 hours, The London Plane’s team was connected with someone at UW hospitals and set up to deliver 400 meals each to two different hospitals, twice per day.
“My husband and I said, ‘Let’s just fund this.’ It’s about $10,000 a day, and we’re committed to seven days,” Anderson said.
Additionally, Anderson, partner Yasuaki Saito and chef Danny Conkling have set up a GoFundMe account to help offset the cost of goods and labor. They estimate that each meal sent to a UW hospital worker costs $6.25, including labor, food costs and delivery. Any extra funds raised will go toward hospital staff support.
“We don’t have the bandwidth to do this for more than a week,” Anderson said.
Now that their week is up, Anderson hopes other restaurants or good Samaritans will “pick it up” where they have left off.
14590 N.E. 145th St., Woodinville, 425-485-5300, theherbfarm.com
Woodinville mainstay The Herbfarm is also turning out specialty meals for hospital workers. Chef Chris Weber is using produce from The Herbfarm’s garden and supplementing with mushrooms, proteins, eggs and vegetables purchased from The Herbfarm’s network of artisanal producers.
Herbfarm has set up a GoFundMe, too, and is hoping to ramp up production. According to the fundraising page, “As a team, we’ve decided that concentrating our fundraising efforts on maximizing The Herbfarm’s food preparation capacity is the right approach.”
Herbfarm estimates its staff can produce up to 4,000 meals a week, or 571 meals per day.
“To do that, we’d need $100,000 per week until the COVID-19 crisis ends,” its GoFundMe page states.
Taste of India
5517 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle 206-528-1575, tasteofindiaseattle.com
On March 21, Taste of India in the University District donated enough food to feed 100 people from the UW virology staff. Owner Mohammad Arfan Bhatti says he’s not looking for recognition, he just wants to help feed those in need.
“If anyone is looking for donations, we can help,” he said.
Bhatti recommends calling the restaurant and asking directly for him, or emailing him at email@example.com.
93 Pike St., Seattle, 206- 829-9525, atriumkitchenpikeplace.com
Chef Traci Calderon of Atrium Kitchen in Pike Place Market has been providing meals to seniors living at the market, and has cooked and donated complete meals to 60 seniors almost daily since March 16.
“My intention was to give them at least two to three days of prepared food so that they do not have to worry about getting groceries; fully balanced meals with a lot of nourishment,” Calderon said.
She has gotten donations from Seattle-area restaurants including Pasta Casalinga, Tilikum Place Cafe, The Harvest Vine, The Blarney Stone Pub and Restaurant, Lowell’s, Queen Anne Roasters and Pike Place Fish Market. Chefs from local restaurants have also volunteered time to help cook. Calderon continues to accept donations through her Nourished Neighborhood and Kindness in the Kitchen programs, where she regularly provides free meals in the Atrium Kitchen space on Friday mornings and the first Wednesday of every month.
“I have enough donations right now to make meals this week and next week. After that, if I have donations to be able to make more food, I’m just going to go based on need. Who knows how long this is going to go on, but my spirit is there and I will do this as long as I can,” Calderon said.
2221 N.W. Market St., Seattle, 206-297-2855, matadorrestaurants.com
The Ballard location of the Tex-Mex restaurant Matador delivered 75 burritos to Swedish Medical Center on March 17. Now the restaurant is directing people who want to help to its catering website as a way to identify others needing meals. A Facebook post on the Ballard Matador page states: “We’d definitely encourage anyone who wants to help to call your local grocery stores, hospitals, fire stations, UPS/FedEx outposts — anyone who doesn’t have the option to stay home right now — and see if they could use a meal. If so, head to our EZ Cater page and simply have them deliver to the service of your choice!”
Seattle Times staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.