As restaurants work to stay in business with empty dining rooms and skeleton crews, many laid-off service industry workers are adjusting to their own new normal-- for some that means struggling to put food on the table.
Caitlin Cullen, owner of The Tandem
in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood, is all too familiar with that reality, having laid off two-thirds of the restaurant's employees last week-- just ahead of statewide restaurant closures
limiting operations to carry-out and delivery in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Instead of offering standard takeout service, The Tandem has pivoted in a different direction. Since last Wednesday, Cullen and five remaining employees have given away hundreds of free 'community meals,' while aiming to destigmatize that basic need.
"There are lot of folks that we think of as people who would show up at a soup kitchen or shelter for free meals, and really with all of Milwaukee's wage workers laid off-- and a huge portion of them being restaurant workers-- we wanted to change the idea of what it felt like to go get a free meal especially for folks who might have to do it for the first time," said Cullen.
Relying solely on both food and monetary donations, the restaurant rolls out a new menu each day, with three or four different meal options based on what inventory is available. People can call between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays to reserve a meal for curbside pick-up, "no questions asked."
The southern-style restaurant opened in 2016 as a teaching restaurant, employing and training high school graduates from the surrounding neighborhood. So, this community-focused pivot is on-brand for the business, Cullen said.
At first, the plan was to offer curbside and delivery service while using up all perishable food items for a limited quantity of free meals. But after serving up 85 free meals in three hours on day one and 150 free meals in two hours on day two, the restaurant transitioned to community meals only.
That was despite making more money during the first couple days of delivery and carryout than it had made in the past three years, said Cullen.
On Friday, which was day three, The Tandem served almost 250 free meals.
"I think the need was a little stronger than what we thought it may be," Cullen said.
The Tandem will continue serving community meals as long as resources are available, and so far, community support has been strong. She said the average donation is approximately $25, which goes a long way when one meal costs between $3 and $5 on average.
But Cullen anticipates the impact of COVID-19 will last longer than expected, so she's now working to get other Milwaukee-based restaurants on board with the community meals program.
So far, Three Brothers, Goodkind, Strange Town, The National Cafe and Bavette la Boucherie have agreed to exchange unused inventory or ready-made meals for a portion of the donations, which could be used to support laid-off workers or continued operations.
"The more we can get money out to the economy of other restaurants while stockpiling meals here for the months ahead, I think the better off we're all going to be," said Cullen. "It's increasing the manpower of what is now technically a five-person operation."
She said getting more restaurants involved will hopefully make the experience more comfortable and dignified for those in need.
The Tandem is taking donations for community meals via its website
or by check.