Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to newstips@seattletimes.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”

Opening your own restaurant is a difficult business endeavor at any time, but opening one in the middle of a global health crisis is close to impossible.

Chef Aaron Tekulve planned to open his Central District restaurant, Surrell, on March 19. But the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing stay-home orders and dining-room shutdowns derailed those plans completely.

“We had a soft opening earlier with some friends and family,” said Tekulve. “But losing the fanfare of a grand opening has made it really hard for us to get our name out there.”

Beyond serving takeout meals, Tekulve was scrambling to find ways to pay mounting rent and utility costs. But in a stroke of luck, he got a call from Off Their Plate.

Off Their Plate, a nonprofit that originated in Boston and now operates in several U.S. cities including Seattle, has found a way to simultaneously support two groups of workers whose lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic: restaurants and hospital staff.

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The organization raises money within a community, then helps create jobs for laid-off restaurant workers by giving local restaurant owners the financial means to resume operations. Then, Off Their Plate buys meals from these partner restaurants and sends them to medical workers.

Off Their Plate has solicited over $3.8 million in donations nationwide. The money has come from fundraisers as big as an online concert featuring Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls to strangers sharing donation links online.

Joy Sgobba, health care lead of Off Their Plate’s Seattle branch, joined the nonprofit after losing her job amid coronavirus-related layoffs.

“Immediately I thought, ‘How can I focus my efforts in a positive way and make an impact?’ ” said Sgobba.

Off Their Plate has deals with other local restaurants, including Pioneer Square favorite Nirmal’s, and continues to look for more partners. Restaurants must meet certain criteria: ensuring that 50% or more of funds go toward paying their workers, and that food is prepared and packaged in a way that is safe to give to health care workers.

Even as they cook meals for hospital workers, Surrell and Nirmal’s are both still open for takeout.

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Sgobba originally contacted Tekulve after hearing about Surrell through her sister, and he quickly jumped on board to start planning meals that could be easily packed, delivered and stored for health care workers.

“It was such great timing, we got to work on it right away,” said Tekulve. “I feel a huge sense of gratitude, serving noble and brave people, I feel special to be a small part of that.”

Tekulve estimates that Off Their Plate currently accounts for 75% of his revenue, helping him cover overhead costs and keep Surrell afloat despite dining-room closures.

This kind of generosity has popped up all over Seattle. Another nonprofit, Meals for Morale, was created a few weeks after shutdowns began, and also coordinates donated meals to medical workers.

Meals for Morale was started by a trio of friends — two of whom are UW medical students — as a way to give back to the community.

Bryanna Woo, left, Steven Ngo and Taylor Sekizaki of Meals for Morale. (Courtesy of Peter Lee)
Bryanna Woo, left, Steven Ngo and Taylor Sekizaki of Meals for Morale. (Courtesy of Peter Lee)

“We’re all doing this on late nights and weekends; this is really a passion project for the four of us,” said Meals for Morale fundraising director Bryanna Woo. “It all started with the question, ‘What can we do right now to help our community?’ “

Originally, Meals for Morale aimed to coordinate the generosity of restaurants. Woo, who also runs a food and travel Instagram account, had previously partnered with the Halal Guys in Pioneer Square.  She reached out to them and Halal Guys donated 20 meals to workers at Harborview Medical Center

Since then, Meals for Morale has coordinated more than 1,000 donated meals from Tai Tung, Crawfish King and other Seattle-area restaurants.

Even restaurants that are unable to donate meals have showed support for the Meals for Morale cause, spreading word and sharing information about the organization, Woo said.

Meals for Morale is pivoting toward fundraisers, in hope that instead of relying on restaurant donations, they’ll be able to buy the meals off them instead.

“I’ve been so inspired by the generosity of our community in this time,” said Woo. “Even in a time when restaurants are hurting, they’re still looking for ways to give.”