As if restaurateurs didn’t have enough to worry about trying to keep their own businesses afloat in the midst of a global pandemic and a complicated mishmash of operating regulations coming from various governmental authorities, many chefs across the South have also taken the initiative to reach out beyond the walls of their own establishments to help feed those in need in their communities, including displaced workers from their own hospitality industry.
New Orleans chef Isaac Toups of Toups’ Meatery explains the compulsion to help even in the face of personal crisis, saying, “I feel this moral responsibility to feed people. It’s what I do. If you come to my house, I’m gonna feed you. If you come to my restaurant, I’m gonna feed you. If you can afford to pay for a meal, pay for a meal. If not, I got ya’ anyway! I can’t let you go hungry.”
Unlike many restaurants that shut down for a while at the very beginning of the Coronavirus crisis to figure out what their next steps should be, Toups isn’t the type to wait around for directions. “We shut down for 24 hours to deep clean the restaurant,” he recalls. “We essentially dipped the entire place in bleach, and then we reopened the next day for delivery service.”
Right off the bat, Toups had to deal with some personnel decisions: “The first day we said we were going to keep all the managers and had to furlough a couple of servers and line cooks. We told them, ‘Hey, we’ve got to let you go for a little while, but we’ll bring you back ASAP. But look, any day you don’t have anything to eat, you come over, and we’re going to feed you every day.’ We normally do family meal twice a day for every shift, so we said we’d make 20 family meals instead of 10, and anybody that doesn’t have a meal, come over, come eat, no big deal.”
It didn’t take long for that informal program to expand. Toups recalls, “One of my chefs asked me, ‘Hey, my roommates got laid off too, and they don’t have anything to eat. Could we break him off a piece of sausage or something?’ So I decided to cook 30 meals the next day and tell them to come over. They were in the industry, so we started to reach out and tell anybody in the industry that needed a meal to come on! We’ll come out of pocket. That number started to grow exponentially really quick, and we had to think on our feet.”
Toups’ wife Amanda started working social media to offer even more meals to displaced service industry workers. “That quickly turned into ‘We don’t care what industry you’re in. Come get a meal,’” shares Toups. Fortunately, they started getting donations to help out with their efforts pretty early on: chicken and sausages from purveyors, produce and seafood that would have been thrown away anyway. Toups started to get even more creative with his offering: “We started getting some money donations, then all sorts of products. We got candy for the children and made a bunch of Easter baskets and sent them to the women’s and children’s shelters, and an apothecary donated some nice Mother’s Day soaps for homeless mothers. It was a really wonderful crowdsourced support.”
Being in New Orleans after all, Toups received some treats for adults, too. “Some local breweries donated a bunch of beer, so for several weeks we were able to give somebody a meal, some toys for their children and a beer, just to put a little smile, a little bit of a break.” Toups continues, “It broke my heart one day when this couple comes up and says, ‘Hey, we’re in the service industry, but we’ve got three children. Is it ok if we get five meals?’ I told him of course, and liked to cried on the spot. I didn’t even realize they had the children with them, so I gave them five meals and five beers. I made them take the five beers, because if anybody needed an extra beer it was them!”
While the demand for Toups’ family meals has subsided a bit as New Orleans restaurants open up again, the chef is still discovering the impact he made and continues to contribute. He shares, “There’s all these little stories of people in need. One guy came in last week and paid for a meal and told us that we had fed him for the first three weeks of this. Now he had a job again and wanted to spend his money here. The whole community got behind the program. It’s still going on, about 70-80 meals a day, We’re still getting some donations and are going to keep it going as long as we can.”
Even with the uncertainty of current demand, Toups still manages to meet the needs of his community. He explains, “I haven’t run out yet. You know what I’ve got? I’ve got instincts, two giant crawfish pots and a wooden paddle I’ve worn down to the goddamned nub! It’s easy to make too much, so every day I either make two big crawfish pots or 15 sheets of savory bread pudding, beans and rice or catfish stew. We keep doing what we can. It’s almost like an episode of “Top Chef” [the show that thrust Toups into the national spotlight back in 2015.] I walk in there every day at 9:00, and I’m like ‘Alright, you’ve got two crawfish pots. You need to feed 300 people. You’ve got a wooden paddle. You got beer, some pork butts and some collard greens. Go!’”
Toups has also partnered with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to expand the reach of his charity beyond just the hospitality community. “Now we’re feeding 300-400 people five days a week, and we’re getting some money back for it. It’s $10 a plate; it’s not much, but we’re able to give people a good meal and keep the lights on. I ain’t making no money, but I’ve been able to bring back almost all my line cooks and servers.”
Ironically, this should be a time for celebration for Toups and his crew. After years of trying, he finally purchased the Toups Meatery building on the first day of the pandemic and was named as a finalist for the “Best Chef: South” award from the James Beard Foundation. The chef is still sanguine, saying “I can’t celebrate. It’s an honor, but I don’t want an award. I just want my business back. I’m too dumb to be scared. All we can do is stick our heads forward and go!”
If you would like to donate to family meal, Toups’ Meatery is accepting donations via Venmo (@toupsmeatery), PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org and over the phone at 504-252-4999.
Resetting the Table: Restaurants Helping Hospitality Workers and Their Communities
Kelly English Matt Bolus Griffin Bufkin