Extra Helping: #ATLFamilyMeal scales to feed thousands of restaurant workers and more good food deeds

What restaurants are doing for the community, and how readers can help, as they confront COVID-19 the week of April 6.


Editor’s note: As the coronavirus disrupts the restaurant industry, the AJC has changed its dining coverage. Previously, the AJC published a weekly roundup of metro Atlanta dining events. Instead, a new weekly column called Extra Helping will highlight the good deeds of restaurants and ways that readers can use their dining dollars to feed good causes.

If you're part of the metro Atlanta restaurant industry, Michael Lennox wants to feed you. In a restaurant landscape recently filled with heartwarming stories of restaurants supporting a city on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lennox's leadership of the #ATLFamilyMeal movement stands out for its scale and ambition.

“We want to feed the entire hospitality industry,” said Lennox, the owner of Electric Hospitality Group, which includes Ladybird, Golden Eagle and Muchacho. “We want all restaurants to get together on this and pull together under one flag.”

It’s a nice sentiment, and it might sound like a pie-in-the-sky goal if the organization could not already back up its mission with numbers. In just two weeks, #ATLFamilyMeal has delivered more than 6,000 meals to recently unemployed restaurant industry workers. The newly-created nonprofit plans to deliver more than 100,000 meals as it expands in the coming weeks.

Lennox said that he began anticipating the economic slowdown due to the global coronavirus pandemic six or seven weeks ago, when he saw the effects of the outbreak in Seattle.

“I saw pictures of Pike Place Market with no one in it, and I realized it wasn’t going to be good,” said Lennox, referencing one of Seattle’s most popular tourist attractions. He began calling peers in the restaurant industry to see what plans they were making, but no one seemed to have any. “That was stressing me out,” he said.

He began to think about the measures taken in the hardest-hit cities on the West Coast and in other countries, and assumed that similar rules and guidance would be issued in Atlanta. He thought there would be a federally-mandated nationwide quarantine. “What does it look like if all the restaurants in Atlanta are closed?” he asked. “Not just our restaurants, but all restaurants.”

As an Atlanta native, Lennox said he has “a good network.” He called David Cummings, the founder of Atlanta Tech Village, who introduced Lennox to a few of his technology connections with experience in areas like logistics and coding. The began working with #ATLFamilyMeal on a volunteer basis and “have been going full-throttle for a couple of weeks,” said Lennox.

One of the keys for the organization is the ability to scale. “We have to look at this as a problem that’s going to get bigger and bigger,” said Lennox. He noted that many restaurant workers live paycheck to paycheck, so losing their income quickly leads to an inability to pay for necessities like food and shelter.

With that in mind, #ATLFamilyMeal has gathered the services of a variety of restaurant industry heavyweights. Much of the food the organization has served thus far has been donated by US Foods, one of the largest food vendors in the world. In addition to the kitchens of Electric Hospitality's restaurants, many of the organization's meals have been prepared in Eugene Kitchen, the commissary kitchen owned by Linton and Gina Hopkins that supplies their Hopkins & Co. restaurant group, as well as clients like Delta. Local food delivery company Zifty has signed on to help deliver meals to restaurant workers all over the city who have been signed up by their employers for #ATLFamilyMeal. Anyone else who would like to contribute can donate directly through the organization's website.

The logistical challenge has been mind-boggling and the volunteer tech team has spent much of its time tackling the issue of distribution. They must gather addresses from every #ATLFamilyMeal recipient and map out the most efficient delivery routes for each Zifty vehicle, with each one ideally delivering hot meals to several different restaurant workers in their homes. “It’s like a little mail route,” said Lennox.

Lennox is quick to deflect credit to his collaborators, including the Hopkins and Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, who Lennox says was one of the organization’s earliest supporters. The system for #ATLFamilyMeal relies on restaurant owners to sign up and provide the nonprofit with information about their current and recently laid-off employees, so Bremer’s support helped add immediate legitimacy to the organization.

#ATLFamilyMeal sends out two deliveries per week, Wednesdays and Fridays. Meals are  generally wholesome, comfort food-type menus, such as roast chicken and vegetables. Lennox encourages any interested restaurant owners to sign up; restaurant workers who do not need assistance are able to opt-out if their meals would be better served elsewhere.

Though #ATLFamilyMeal is poised to help thousands of unemployed restaurant workers in the coming months, Lennox’s enthusiasm is tempered by the reality that restaurants face for the foreseeable future. “We closed all of our restaurants on March 16, after we had a precipitous drop in sales over the course of a beautiful weekend,” he said. “That Monday was basically the worst day of my life.”

“The idea of people sitting at home with nothing but TV and canned goods, it just seems like a recipe for a national mental health crisis,” said Lennox. “I thought, ‘What do we have that we can use?’ We have access to food, people who know how to cook… What can we do with that?”

What they’ve done is to feed thousands of Georgia’s restaurant employees - and created a future that holds many thousands more family meals.

If you'd like to donate to #ATLFamilyMeal, visit www.atlfamilymeal.org.

More Helpers

Castellucci Hospitality Group, which includes the Iberian Pig, Double Zero Napoletana, Cooks & Soldiers, Recess, Bar Mercado and Sugo, and has started a program called "Meals for the Frontline." The group has partnered with Piedmont Hospital and Emory University Hospital to provide meals to ICU and emergency room medical teams and volunteers. On each CHG restaurant's online ordering page, there is an option to add a Frontline Meal to your order for $15. For every Frontline Meal purchased, CHG will match that meal and deliver it to hospital workers, ensuring two meals are delivered for each donation. The program is live now and can be found on the online ordering page for all CHG restaurants.

Local fast-casual chain Gusto served 300 meals to the men and women of the Atlanta Police Department today. APD officers and employees were able to enjoy complimentary offerings of the restaurant's salads, grain bowls and wraps at Gusto's location at 782 Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Food waste management company Goodr and Atlanta-area Papa John's locations have teamed up to provide pizza dinners and grocery deliveries to 250 Atlanta families in need each week. Families who are already part of the Goodr network will be eligible to receive one of these deliveries happening twice per week through April 20. For additional information or to sign up with Goodr, visit www.goodr.co.

Domino's and its franchisees plan to donate 29,000 pizzas to hospitals, medical centers and schools in the metro Atlanta area over the next few weeks. A spokesperson for the pizza chain said that deliveries were already planned for Piedmont Hospital, Northside Hospital and Emory University Hospital. Local franchisees have the autonomy to donate pizzas to any essential workers or neighbors in need, and donated deliveries will be determined on a store-by-store basis. For more information on Domino's Pizza Relief program, contact your local franchise.

Henri's Bakery is encouraging customers to donate meals to first responders dealing with COVID-19 by boosting any catering orders donated to them by 50%. The caterer is encouraging donors to place orders of 100 or more sack lunches to be delivered medical facilities or first responder facilities and will add on 50% more meals for free - so a donation of 100 meals would actually deliver 150. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.indigopayments.com/henrisdonate.


Read the AJC Fall Dining Guide: The Noodle Edition

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