Restaurants all over the Tahoe region were stocked and prepped for the expected traffic that should have accompanied Miracle March. Instead, we’re involved in a pandemic that has led to a “stay at home” order, coined the term “distancing”, and caused the closing of most restaurants. We’re reminded of how vital the restaurant industry is to our nation’s economy.
Business data platform Statistica estimates that 13.5 million people work in the restaurant industry in the U.S. The North Tahoe region alone, heavily reliant on tourism and a hotspot for the restaurant industry, is littered with eateries that are now fully or partially closed, leaving hundreds of restaurant employees out of work.
Entrepreneurial husband and wife team Danny McCabe and Rachel Graf saw this reality as an opportunity to give back to the community they love. In a matter of days, their idea to transform McCabe’s restaurant, The Station, a dine-in Truckee eatery, into a bulk kitchen that can serve hundreds of meals daily, was brought to life. The effort was dubbed Sierra Relief Kitchen, and will now be open every Thursday and Saturday for the foreseeable future.
“We were isolating at home,” said McCabe, “and my wife, Rachel, was like, ‘Hey, I think we need to get out there and start cooking for people in need. The situation is getting worse and we have the capability and we certainly have the time, so let’s do it.’”
Initially expecting to make about 40 meals for community members in need on its first day, Sierra Relief Kitchen ended up serving around 120 meals on April 16 when they opened up operations. They’ve partnered with Pastor Scott Capshaw from the First Baptist Church in Tahoe City, as well as community members in Kings Beach, to seek out individuals and families who need a fresh, hot meal. Capshaw offered to take over the bulk of the meal delivery with the church’s passenger vans.
“[First Baptist Church’s] network was over half of all of our business yesterday,” McCabe said of the kickoff day. “Out of 105, they were 55 orders. It went big on the first day, and tomorrow we’re expecting 200.” They served 220 meals on April 18, and are expecting to prepare at least 300 for Thurs., April 23.
Additionally, Elsa Corrigan, owner of the former Mamasake in Squaw Village, and Randy Rogers, Graf, and Carolyn Nunn, owners and managers of The Auld Dubliner and Tremigo (also in Squaw), have donated their time, food supplies, and kitchens for meal prep. In the past, The Auld Dubliner has held numerous fundraisers for local nonprofits like Achieve Tahoe and High Fives.
“I’ve always loved community outreach … We always try to incorporate community events into the restaurants,” Graf said. “I thought, we’ve got access to these awesome kitchens, and there are so many people in the restaurant industry that want to help out, so why not use our resources and alleviate some of the pressure that can be taken off some of the existing hunger relief programs?”
A North Tahoe food bank operates out of Sierra Bible Church in Truckee, and a Meals on Wheels program through Sierra Senior Services helps deliver around 60 hot lunches to seniors in the area.
“When this happened, it came at us at a million miles an hour, you know? Every restaurant in the area was prepared for a big storm to come in, then a big week,” McCabe explained. “I had a refrigerator that was prepped for the weekend. I had backups and we were ready to do thousands of dollars in business and have a successful period of time in this Miracle March.”
They quickly realized that they might actually be closing instead of profiting during an unexpected high season, and before they knew it, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order soon shut down “nonessential” businesses, including restaurants unable to adapt with takeout or curbside options. The Station, Tremigo, and The Auld Dubliner started giving much of the restaurants’ extra food away to employees and anybody that could use the resources. Food purveyors, McCabe explained, are caught in the same situation. They’re sending restaurants daily discount sheets in hopes of putting the food to good use.
“We’re pantry cooking — pulling things from what we’ve got and making a meal out of it,” he said, explaining how both restaurants are making use of extra meat from Tremigo and produce from both restaurants.
In less than two weeks’ time, Sierra Relief Kitchen has raised more than $15,000 to help feed the community. The money covers supplies to make the meals, and while initial fundraising success will sustain them for a little while, they will need significant additional funding if their current momentum continues.
Though the group set a goal of raising $25,000 to meet the current need that the coronavirus has created, they’re now setting their sights on raising funds in the six figures in order to provide quality meals far into the future.
“Right now, we are giving 100% free meals to the community,” McCabe said. “The Station is currently not open to the public. If in a few weeks … restrictions start loosening up and we feel that there is a need for more to-go food, then we might start opening up. But I don’t think we’re really going to see the full à la carte menu that we had before anytime soon.”
With hundreds of former restaurant employees out of work, some are volunteering their time at Sierra Relief Kitchen as food preppers, coordinators, and drivers alongside their former bosses, a testament to the resiliency and flexibility of the service industry in North Lake Tahoe.
“We really want to get some of our staff back to work, a lot of our kitchen staff especially,” Graf said. “We’ve seen this as a great opportunity to try to get some people working again and be able to pay them and start to slowly operate again.”
The head chefs at Tremigo, Veronica and Antonio Abundiz, were thrilled to help with this project and showed up with their gear, ready to go.
“We’re serving a lot of the Mexican community, and a lot of low-income demographics, and also just a lot of families that lost both their jobs and are waiting on unemployment,” Graf explained. “Money is starting to get really tight.”
Sierra Relief Kitchen is also able to deliver meals so people don’t have to worry about leaving their houses. “When people have to go to big distribution centers, they can sometimes get embarrassed to go,” Graf furthered. “So we’re hoping this gives people the opportunity to anonymously request a meal service if they need it, while also minimizing any contact that we have.”
In communities across the country, immigrant workers provide the core of the population of restaurant workers. Any who are undocumented won’t see a dime from unemployment or other government assistance. With many people in our local immigrant community suddenly out of work, Sierra Relief Kitchen is hoping to alleviate some of the stress from undocumented workers.
“This is for families who haven’t gotten any unemployment; they’ve had to pay rent, and their bills are stacking up, and this is something to provide people a good meal,” McCabe added. “But really it’s open to anybody— anybody who’s struggling to pay their bills or anyone who is hungry. Don’t be shy, we’re all in this together.”
Unfortunately, Graf said, they can’t currently handle many more on-site volunteers right now, given social distancing protocol to be as safe as possible. “At this point, if anyone wants to help out, the best thing they can do is to support the GoFundMe campaign or just spread the word. Share it with people who might need the service or with people who might feel comfortable donating.”
They’ve been receiving donations ranging anywhere from $10 to $1,000, and stress that any little bit helps.
“Danny and I are both workers, we’re not really used to just sitting around,” Graf said. “We need to keep our brains going and we just wanted to do something good for our community, so it’s been really awesome to get so much support and positive feedback from the community.”
Head to sierrareliefkitchen.com to donate and learn more.