As COVID-19 began to spread and restrictions were placed on restaurants, Aaron Collins and his wife, Netalee Sheinman, who operate Banzo on Sherman Avenue, were talking about how they could help those in the medical field.
Their conversation was interrupted by someone at St. Mary’s Hospital, who was ordering food for his staff of six or seven.
“I just said, ‘Wait, are you all health care workers?’” Aaron Collins said. “They said, ‘Yeah.’ And I just said, ‘This one’s on us.’ And I explained to them the funny timing of their phone call and the doctor ended up being from Israel as well. He’s from Haifa. So I said, ‘I can’t not donate to you now.’”
Sheinman was born in New York City, but grew up in Israel. The couple, who operate two Banzo food carts specializing in falafel, opened their Mediterranean restaurant at 2105 Sherman Ave., in 2012.
During the pandemic, they’ve had to close their dining room, and cut staff, hours and menu items.
Aside from that spontaneous gift, Banzo’s owners donated 10% of their gift card sales from March 15 to April 6 to the Food for Thought Initiative, which helps feed students in the Madison area struggling with hunger — “Kids who depend on school lunches who are not getting them now,” Collins said.
They took in $750 and donated $75, Collins said. “It wasn’t much.”
Other restaurant owners are also reaching out to support health care workers as both groups come under immense challenges.
Susan Bulgrin, who co-owns three area Culver’s franchises, donated 60 coupons for value meals and turtle sundaes to UW health care providers at 20 S. Park St.
“Essentially what we wanted to do is show our appreciation for everything that they’re doing for the community as well as the patients,” Bulgrin said.
Community members have also stepped up to help restaurants by buying gift cards and ordering carryout or delivery from restaurants still doing business.
Terry Murawski, executive vice president of Thomas Bradley Insurance, spent a week and a half developing a program to benefit both health care workers and restaurants. His company donated the first $1,000 to fund Pay It Forward to Health Care Heroes, which went live with its website this week.
“The restaurant and food and beverage industry’s been crushed like a lot of businesses have been during this period of time,” Murawski said.
Murawski learned from a contact at UW Foundation that local hospitals “were being inundated with people that wanted to help in some way.” She told him the hospitals were not taking deliveries of food, but suggested he look into gift cards.
Pay It Forward to Health Care Heroes accepts donations that are turned into $15 gift cards for food. “Now why is it $15? There’s no magic, but we determined what a meal might cost, for an individual to buy a pizza or a hamburger and fries,” he said.
Murawski, whose firm includes restaurant clients, is working with the owners of the Nitty Gritty, Banzo, Roman Candle, Parthenon Gyros and Rock Hound Brewery, among others. He’s also enlisted the local restaurant organization Madison Originals and the Food Fight restaurant group. The gift cards that go to health care workers come with a note of thanks.
The gifts are going to employees at UW Health and UnityPoint Health-Meriter as they finish a shift. “It’s no longer eight hours,” Murawski said. “It’s 10, 12, 14 hours.”
Lee Pier, co-owner of the Nitty Gritty restaurants, helped Murawski coordinate with other restaurant operators and UW Health.
“I know there are a lot of organizations out there right now that have GoFundMe pages and Venmo (accounts) set up where you can send a pizza and things like that,” Pier said, adding that he’d like Murawski’s effort to be copied in other places across Wisconsin. “Hey, if you’re a local restaurant and you’re open right now and you’re struggling, reach out.”
Joe Storkson, the chief operating officer for Fearing’s Audio Video Security in Madison, volunteered his time to set up an elaborate website for Pay It Forward to Health Care Heroes because, he said, it reflects his personal and professional values of altruism. He called web design a hidden talent of his.
“With this pandemic at hand, it is more important than ever for our community to stand together to do something bigger than ourselves while supporting local restaurants and giving back to those who sacrifice their health to protect ours,” Storkson said.
Beth Blum, director of events for UW Health, said UW Health also has its own fund to support workers, which, as of Monday, had raised about $11,000. UW Health has used some of the donations from its COVID-19 Response Fund to buy gift cards for employees to use at Culver’s, Moka, Kwik Trip, Panera and Food Fight, places she said are easily accessible to employees and affordable.
Blum said some transportation staff who get supplies to frontline workers — from housekeepers to culinary staff to nurses — have been the earliest recipients.
UW Health spokeswoman Emily Kumlien said a $7,000 grant from Friends of UW Health and a $3,000 grant from builder JP Cullen will be used to purchase gift cards.
Food Fight, which runs 20 restaurants in the Madison area, started its own program, Feed the Frontline, which is modeled after other initiatives, large and small, across the country.
Funds donated to Feed the Frontline go to buy breakfast or lunch care packages, that will go to “front line” workers, not just health care workers, but people who work in grocery stores, pharmacies, social work agencies or clinics, civil service offices, post offices, and in police or fire stations, among others.
A website for the program went live April 2, and alcohol distributor Breakthru Beverage Wisconsin kicked off orders with care packages to feed more than 300 people. Each package also gets a thank you note with the purchaser’s name or names.
Donations not only provide food for frontline workers, they keep some Food Fight restaurant employees working. The company has had to furlough about 800 employees as state orders last month restricted public gatherings.
Lisa Loup, Food Fight’s event director, said the company has about 150 people still employed, including office employees, which is more than it expected.
“The to-go orders have helped us keep more on the schedule than we thought,” Loup said, noting that Food Fight has, on average, about seven or eight employees working at each of the 14 locations still open.
More than 700 meals had been ordered as of Thursday, she said. The company will gather orders at the end of each week, and send out deliveries the following week. The first orders are set to go out Wednesday.
Since they are unable to get meals into the hospitals, Loup said they’re hoping to deliver to the UW-Madison residence hall that’s serving as temporary housing for University Hospital employees and others who work for UnityPoint Health-Meriter, and want a place to sleep without going home and putting loved ones at risk.
“We are hoping to be able to deliver to these dorms,” Loup said. “Clinics are still accepting food donations as long as everything is individually wrapped. We will not be entering facilities, but rather planning ahead for the hand off outside.”
Banzo’s Collins said that local restaurants have had to make difficult decisions, especially when it comes to keeping hard-working staff. “We’re just trying to keep the business running so that eventually we have jobs to give people back.”
Collins is appreciative of the support his restaurant has gotten from the community. “We’re not saving anybody’s life. We’re just trying to stay in business and trying to do it in a way that’s safe.”
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