A movement cannot live on pizza alone.

For three weeks, tens of thousands of protesters have descended on the Capitol Square, many rallying outside, some packing the inside of the Capitol and even sleeping there, to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to strip public workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights.

And they got hungry.

Famously, Ian’s Pizza stepped up, delivering to date over 55,000 slices of pizza to protesters, all paid for by donations from supporters around the world. They continue to get about 30 calls a day for donations. Ian’s efforts got them attention from worldwide press, including a feature on CNN, and now you can buy commemorative Ian’s Pizza “This is what democracy tastes like” T-shirts at the State Street pizza eatery.

Ian’s has been at the forefront of a network of Madison restaurants throwing their support behind the protesters. The windows of many downtown restaurants are plastered with signs expressing solidarity with the cause, and others have been busy sending food and drink down to the protesters to keep them fortified.

And, with protests entering a fourth week, they show no signs of abating.

“Our teachers are our customers, and the plumbers, and all the people who live in Madison,” said David McKercher, general manager at Mermaid Cafe on Madison’s east side. “When we heard about this, and we heard that people were going to be up there, we knew we would have to be up there, too. And we knew the people will stay longer if they have coffee and food.”

McKercher estimated that the cafe has already brewed 40 to 60 pounds of coffee beans, donated by Just Coffee, and brought it to the Capitol Square via the restaurant’s catering truck. Another 40 to 60 gallons of soup, along with salads and sandwiches, including a shipment of Sloppy Joes made with bread donated from Batch Bakehouse, went to the protesters.

One day, the cafe even brought a hundred pounds of sweet potato fries to the protesters, courtesy of a farmer from south central Wisconsin.

“His father was the president of a teachers’ union, so he called us,” McKercher said. “He brought thousands and thousands of sweet potatoes. We went over to RP’s Pasta and made sweet potato fries. That was really fun.”

Like Ian’s, Mermaid Cafe was also flooded with phone calls from well-wishers who wanted to buy food for the protesters. Unlike Ian’s, though, Mermaid doesn’t take credit cards, so they had to direct people to donate via the cafe’s PayPal account.

“We had donations from Italy, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Australia, Ontario,” McKercher said. “We had huge donations from Mequon and Bayfield. It was amazing how people came together and supported this whole thing.”

Meanwhile, Cargo Coffee on Park Street has also been sending java to the rallies, donating an estimated 4,000 cups of coffee via the Democratic Party of Dane County. Cargo co-owner Lindsey Lee is a member of the organization’s executive board, and said that the union cause is very personal to him: He grew up in Flint, Mich., and most of his relatives were either auto workers or public school teachers.

“I’m from Flint, Michigan, which was the birthplace of the modern labor movement,” Lee said. “That is my life. I don’t want the city that I moved to known as the place where the labor movement died.”

The Defend Wisconsin website, which has coordinated some of the protesters’ efforts, lists a dozen restaurants that have offered to send deliveries directly to the rallies, including Silver Mine Subs, Mother Fool’s Coffee House, Nature’s Bakery and Steep N’ Brew.

Other restaurants have shown their support to the cause by posting signs in windows, especially those on or near the Capitol Square. At Underground Kitchen on Mifflin Street, the front window is full of signs, many of them left behind by protesters who came to the restaurant to eat after a protest.

Kris Noren, one of the five partners who own Kitchen, said that the ecleccic restaurant changes its menu so often that it often has leftover food that it can donate to protesters. Among the items the restaurant has sent to the Square are burritos and tureens of lentil soup.

Of course, the influx of protesters has also meant more potential customers for downtown restaurants. Mary Carbine, executive director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, said that the effect has been felt more on moderately priced establishments than high-end restaurants.

“While many eateries are experiencing a surge in business, it’s more (felt by) eateries that serve the quick food,” Carbine said.

Carbine said that some visitors might be leery about coming to a downtown restaurant in the midst of the protests. But she noted that the rallies have all been safe and peaceful events, and said there is still adequate parking downtown. She urged visitors to check out  the BID website for updates on parking.

Since Underground Kitchen isn’t open for lunch during the day, when the weekend rallies have been at their peak, Noren said they haven’t really affected his business. But he said that the restaurant fully supports the protest, and that several of its employees have regularly made time before their shifts start or on days off to take part.

“A number of our staff has been there nearly every day,” Noren said. “They’re been run a little ragged, but I’m really proud of them. It’s quite close, so it’s kind of hard to resist. It’s been really fun to see the energy in the streets.”

 

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