Local Restaurants Work Hard to Support Medical Teams

The Austin food scene steps up by doing what it does best

Matt and Tonya Silk of ATX Hospital Meals (Photo by Jana Birchum)

It's no secret that the restaurant industry has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with shelter-in-place orders temporarily closing dining rooms and bars, resulting in countless employees being furloughed. Despite the struggle, the Austin food scene has stepped up to show their support for frontline medical workers by doing what they do best: serving their community with beautiful meals.

ATX Hospital Meals is a new organization designed to support both the local restaurant industry and health care workers, created by local entrepreneur Matt Silk and his wife Tonya. To date, they have raised more than $70,000 "with every single penny going to local eateries and delivered more than 2,500 meals to two St. David's HealthCare facilities and six ATCEMS first responder command stations."

Silk told the Chronicle, "My wife and I run a buy-and-hold residential real estate portfolio in Austin, and I do angel investing in early stage tech companies. Once I had worked with each of my companies on plans to get through the next couple of quarters, we realized we had time and energy to burn. When I read the Medium article talking about [FrontlineFoods.org], it was clear we needed to start one here. ATX Hospital Meals was born the next morning as a four-page Squarespace site and two Google forms. We thought we'd raise $5-10K and deliver a few meals. We didn't realize how much momentum would get behind this mission."

“We thought we’d raise $5-10K and deliver a few meals. We didn’t realize how much momentum would get behind this mission.” – Matt Silk, ATX Hospital Meals

Restaurant partners include Kerbey Lane Cafe, Huckleberry Hospitality, Tacodeli, Old Thousand, 101 by Teahaus (also providing free tea or boba to health care workers who show their badges), Biderman's Deli, Café No Sé, and Sway, among many others. Chi'lantro created reheatable microwavable bowls, which can be purchased for hospital staff via email. Silk added, "The number of volunteers, coordination with other local and national programs and outpouring of support from people far and wide has been inspiring. Our mission is simple: Raise Money – Buy Meals From Local Restaurants – Deliver to Health Care Workers."

Frontline Foods, by the way, is a donation-based platform (currently available in nine urban areas including Austin) that works to coordinate meal donations from community members to provide restaurant meals to medical workers. Frontline Foods recently partnered with the NGO World Central Kitchen and celebrity chef José Andrés, which will provide 501(c)(3) backing and help vet restaurant partners. Locally they're working with restaurants like Sala and Betty, Home Slice Pizza (they also have a "pie for pie" program that donates a pie to community partners like Austin EMS during their designated donation slots), and Taco Flats.

ATX Hospital Meals also recently partnered with the Austin Chinese-Amer­ican Network to allow "both organizations to augment and expand their respective charitable programs and enable ATX Hospital Meals to accept tax-exempt donations and company matches."

Silk said, "ACAN began supporting COVID-19 relief efforts on March 21 targeting underprivileged and at-risk groups in the Austin metro area, including people experiencing homelessness, youths in transition, kids in foster homes and students losing access to school meals. In the past three weeks, ACAN delivered more than 2,100 home-cooked, restaurant donated and partner-entity donated meals to these vulnerable populations most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. ACAN also distributed more than 200 restaurant meals to hospitals, first responders and pharmacists in the same period."

After the first few weeks of ATX Hospital Meals, Silk realized that "some donors were looking for the same tax exemption they get with a typical 501(c)(3) donation," and worked to find a solution. "Partnering with ACAN was a no-brainer as we were able to add tax exempt donations and company matches overnight by structuring this partnership. We are still running the program in the same manner and 100% of all donations are going into buying meals for health care workers as before."

He added, "Across the country, it's been reported that there has been a significant decrease in patronage to Chinese restaurants specifically. While our partnership is not exclusive to Asian restaurants, we do have a handful in the program. However, this pandemic does not discriminate against race, creed, color, age, or sexual orientation, and our mission to support Austin restaurants is the same. We are hoping to help as many local Austin restaurants as we can."

Matt Silk delivers meals to St. David’s HealthCare (Photo by Jana Birchum)

ATX Hospital Meals is "still running 1,000 mph scaling the program as quickly as we can to deliver more meals and onboard more restaurants," said Silk. And in an effort to increase the scale, they announced a corporate giving program alongside Flintco's $15K matching sponsorship. "Help shine a light on this mission to help not only our health care workers who are fighting a war on our behalf but also the thousands of restaurants who may not survive the effects of this pandemic."

As of press time, ATX Hospital Meals has delivered almost 2,600 meals since March 27, from nearly 30 different local restaurants, raising almost $70K from 191 donors.

Silk and his organization are certainly not the only ones jumping into the fray. Eddie Bernal, who owns both Santa Rita Cantina and 34th Street Cafe, was invited to participate in a program to help feed the Seton Media Center. Seton (as do the others) adheres to a strict policy for food deliveries and Santa Rita was invited to provide fajitas and tacos; they make daily (sometimes more) drops and diners can purchase a meal for a Seton employee when they place their own to-go order. The cafe is also feeding medical staffers, and said, "100% is donated from his clientele, approximately $1,000 a week. Crazy wonderful!"

Eddie Bernal of Santa Rita Cantina and 34th Street Cafe prepares food for Seton Medical Center (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Many other Austin restaurants have embarked on their own missions to feed local medical staff. Reunión 19 offers a 10% discount and free delivery to group orders for all first responders. Local olive oil wizards Con' Olio donated 100 bottles of oils and vinegars to be paired with Tony C's garlic knots for a delivery to Baylor Scott & White Hospital evening shift staff. One of our favorite delis in all the land, Otherside Deli, announced they closed for Wednesday breakfasts to supply the $10 meals donated by customers to Seton Medical. An Instagram post said that they have enough donations to continue for four more weeks but would like to extend the service as long as possible. The program "Buy a Healthcare Worker a Meal" utilizes donations made through Otherside's website to give a gift card to different sections of the hospital so that workers can either eat a free breakfast or lunch, or use it to stock their pantry at home.

Many other Austin restaurants have embarked on their own missions to feed local medical staff.

Additionally, JHL Company, an Austin-based events and branding firm, announced the launch of Feed the Fight ATX, a charity created to support local restaurants and frontline health care workers impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throughout Central Texas. "In a natural disaster people inherently know to donate to the Red Cross, but in this disaster it's been confusing where and how to help. Feed the Fight ATX is simple – donations are saving businesses and supporting those who are working for us," said Jennifer Stevens, CEO of JHL.

Feed the Fight was first launched in March in Washington, D.C., by Elena Tomp­kins and has now provided more than 10,000 meals to doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and EMS workers; now it's spread to many other cities. The charity is designed to be community-funded by using the money raised to purchase meals from local restaurants to be delivered to hospitals and first responders in the area – also supporting health care workers, and local restaurants at the same time.

Feed the Fight ATX currently has raised enough for more than 500 meals, including 200 tacos from Tacodeli delivered to Ascension Seton Medical Center. Other participating restaurants include Chuy's, The League, Tony C's, and Snarf Sandwiches.

A few – but certainly not all – of the many other wonderful offerings by our beloved Austin restaurant community include:

• The restaurant group behind Emmer & Rye, Hestia, and Henbit has donated 200 meals a night to Ascension Seton hospitals for more than a week.

Mandola's Italian Kitchen funneled guest donations into meals for health care workers at St. David's Health Center.

Nixta Taqueria – who also announced a partnership with Salt & Time – also donated meals to local hospitals.

• For every boxed lunch purchased, Scholz Garten gives one boxed lunch to emergency personnel.

Baton Creole Cajun food truck provides a plate of food for health care (or hospitality) workers for $10 donation.

The Brand and Mortar Group restaurant group launched a one-for-one "One Tough Cookie Campaign" with cookies by pastry chef Natalie Gazaui.

Figure 8 Coffee Purveyors delivers donated cups and carafes to hospital workers.

Julie Myrtille Bakery sends weekly boxed meals to health care workers.

Juniper offers 25% off to-go orders for medical professionals using the code "FIRSTAID."

Mozart's Coffee gives free meals for first responders daily.

Pizzeria Grata offers 50% off pizzas to health care workers.

Sugar Mama's has a CupCares program to send desserts to all sorts of first responders.

Terry Black's BBQ offers 30% off for medical professionals and Tiny House Coffee donated kegs and cases of cold brew.

Wheatsville Co-op has partnered with Hospice Austin to provide meals for staff.

Please check the websites and social media of all participants for updated information about meals and partnerships.

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