Covid-19 robbed us of countless things we’d taken for granted, such as simple togetherness. And that’s something restaurant business folks deem an acute loss: The camaraderie among restaurant staff can be so bonding that the industry term for the shared supper prior to dinner service is called “the family meal.”
One group of Fort Worth restaurant friends turned their mourning for this tradition into a group project that’s taken on a life of its own — and for a greater good. With no formal organization or official fundraising, a weekly grassroots effort referred to as “family care packs” has handed out 28,000 free meals in six months.
When the pandemic shut restaurant doors in March, Tokyo Café chef Kevin Martinez lamented to a fellow chef that atop of the obvious — namely, loss of work — he missed the staff with whom he works cheek-to-jowl in the restaurant kitchen and those running the front of the house, too. Among pals in the business, he found kindred spirits who also wished they could help colleagues put food on the table.
“That first week of the shutdown, Kevin and I talked about how hard it was to see our friends hurting. And how our restaurant teams are such a part of everyday life — the family meal is especially important,” says chef Jen Williams, owner of catering company Jaycee Hospitality. “You spend all your time at work, so this impact wasn’t just physical but emotional, too.”
Soon Martinez and Williams gathered likeminded chefs who agreed feeding industry folks felt like the organic answer: “That’s who I know, who I’m closest to,” Martinez says.
Martinez asked Tokyo Café owners, husband and wife team Jarry and Mary Ho, for their input, hoping to use the restaurant kitchen space. It was a no-brainer for his employers of 12 years, who quickly saw the effort had benefits not just for those receiving meals, but the team making the food.
“We told Kevin, ‘We’ll support you in any way — just tell us what you need,’” Mary Ho says. “As more people jumped in to help, we saw the good it was doing. For chefs and cooks out of work, especially — they could fill a void by being in a kitchen.”
The informal program came together quickly, with Martinez and fellow chefs cooking meals at Tokyo Café on Friday and Saturday, and packing up the food for distribution on Sunday. Initially they targeted food-and-beverage industry colleagues needing meals for their families at home. Within three or four weeks, they asked frontline workers to come pick up food, as well. As word spread and food donations grew, they soon expanded to a greater audience: “We decided this is for anyone who needs food. We don’t ask, we just give the food away,” Martinez says.
Martinez, who balances this project with his chef duties at Tokyo Café, which reopened in May, begins planning every Wednesday. He learns what food is coming from donors, which include any of nearly 30 area restaurants and food producers around Fort Worth, such as Smokeys BBQ, Standard Meat Company, Paco’s Mexican Cuisine, Great Harvest, Avoca, Melt Ice Creams, Club Reflection, and almost two dozen others.
He builds a menu and shops for goods to fill in the holes, thanks to a weekly check donated by Acre Distilling. Martinez and other Tokyo Café cooks prep and cook between regular service duties on Friday and Saturday. Other chefs around town — like Williams, who typically fills in with her vegetarian dishes, thanks to donations from local farmers — whip up big batches of food, too. David Nguyen, one of the managers at Tokyo Café, blasts out social media posts, complete with photos, to let everyone know where that week’s assembly and distribution takes place.
On Sunday morning, Martinez counts on 10 to 12 food friends showing up to assemble meals for loading into brown grocery sacks. Between noon and 2 p.m., the crew gives away 125 to 150 bags, each containing 12 packaged meals. On a given Sunday, the assortment of foods may contain freshly made ramen, Asian dumplings, marinara and pasta, chicken and dumplings, crawfish, pulled pork, braised beans and greens, mac and cheese, chili, chicken salad, squash tarts, fruit cups, vegetable soup, bread, cookies, paletas, shaved ice, and whole fruit.
“We’ve been hailed on three times, and we’ve been out there when it’s 100 degrees, and we’ll keep doing it. When it gets cold and people need blankets, we’ll give those away, too,” says Martinez, who estimates that some 65 hours of combined manpower goes into the effort each week. “To us, this isn’t a handout. It’s an investment in our city.”
Williams says the boost in mental health has been powerful, thanks to the consistent focus each week on doing something for others. “Food is our love language. This gives us a creative outlet, and we can give some happiness,” he says.
Mary Ho wants to keep supporting Martinez and his colleagues for as long as they continue. She starts to get a little choked up telling the story of a Tokyo Café server who was in a grocery store recently, wearing her work T-shirt en route to the restaurant.
“A woman came up to the server and said she’d received one of the grocery bags one Sunday and that it meant the world to her. She started crying and the server was crying, and it was really sweet,” says Ho. “It’s such a feel-good thing, and everyone needs that now.”
To donate or join the family care pack team, contact Kevin Martinez via email at [email protected]
To see where weekly packs are being distributed — it’s usually a restaurant on West Magnolia Avenue, such as Nonna Tata — check the Tokyo Café Facebook page, facebook.com/tokyocafefw/.