Good Work Austin and dozens of restaurants fed thousands during and after Texas winter storm
Central Texas restaurants had suffered the worst 11 months imaginable: Public health concerns around the coronavirus pandemic forced dining room closures. Operators shifted to takeout and delivery that often caused them lose a considerable amount of each sale to third-party fees. Local and state authorities played a game of push and pull with public safety recommendations and dining room capacity orders. Ad hoc outdoor dining areas were built. Some customers stayed away completely; others were indignant in the face of common sense rules. Sales plummeted.
But with vaccines becoming more widely available, more federal aid pending and a more hopeful spring in sight, some operators were flirting with the unfamiliar feeling of cautious optimism. And then Mother Nature put the entire state in its icy grip and squeezed until we burst.
Many restaurants lost power and access to clean water, just like so many millions of Texans. But people needed to be fed. Restaurants, after taking one setback after another for almost a year, once again rallied and came together to help feed communities in need.
Led by the organizing efforts and know-how of Good Work Austin, and assisted by the relief expertise of global icon and chef José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen, local restaurants stepped up when their communities needed them most. The restaurateurs hope that their response in feeding people during the storm can serve as a model for supporting people in need, and not just during a crisis.
The storm reinforced for Good Work Austin co-founder Adam Orman that his organization, its growth and energy spurred by the storm, can extend its reach and permanently support the city in delivering meals.
“I think there are a lot of people who feel like they’ve been yelling into the void for the past decade,” Orman said. “As the city has gotten bigger, as the city has spread and we’ve relied more and more on the food bank. We should have been figuring that out."
'Everybody reaching out to everybody'
Orman understood the scope of food insecurity in Central Texas well before the winter storm revealed the underlying problem to many.
His organization and its core group of about 20 affiliated restaurants contracted with the city of Austin in 2020 to deliver meals to schoolchildren and their families and to those experiencing homelessness. The nonprofit group, which started in 2018 and consults members of the Austin hospital industry on issues of health care and management training and works with civic leaders, has served about 18,000 meals a week during the coronavirus pandemic.
The start of the winter storm Feb. 14 upended GWA's plans for the week ahead. With their usual delivery of 12,000 Austin school district meals canceled, the restaurants that would usually share that work shifted their focus to cooking for the community at large. The numbers added up quickly.
Austin Public Health asked the group to deliver 120 meals to the warming center established at the Palmer Events Center on Sunday. By Monday the need had multiplied. The city asked the organization to deliver meals to the six cold-weather shelters throughout the week, with the restaurants preparing up to 5,000 meals a day. By Wednesday, the organization agreed to serve about 20 low-income housing properties and added about a dozen nonprofit organizations working to get meals out.
Good Work Austin has a contract with the city that pays them up to $5 per meal served, but the demand brought on by the storm overwhelmed that budget and led to emergency fundraising.
“This was a matter of everybody reaching out to everybody,” said Orman, who co-owns Mueller Italian restaurant L’Oca d’Oro with chef and fellow GWA co-founder Fiore Tedesco.
Texas Food and Wine Alliance helped Good Work Austin organize donations to pay for 75% of the relief effort’s operating budget, which came from major donors like Whole Foods, Indeed, Tito's, Literati, WayWiser, Juniper Square, Yeti and Oatly, along with hundreds of donations from individuals.
The Good Work Austin team of participating restaurants grew to include more than 60 additional restaurants, and eventually they were delivering about 12,000 meals a day during the worst of the crisis.
“We’re all Jewish grandmothers when it comes right down it,” Orman said.
The joining of forces and the spirit of service made an impression on the restaurants. Good Work Austin’s weekly call that occurred after most of the damage has been assessed included almost three times the number of participants of the calls earlier in the pandemic.
Orman said that the lines of cars seen at food bank distribution sites in the early days of the pandemic should be a wake-up call to the problem of food insecurity in our communities. He said the crisis shows how successful empowering restaurants can be, allowing them to feed the community while making a little extra money.
“What will create resilience is if we have more restaurants in more communities doing smaller amounts," Orman said. "Instead of having 20 restaurants making 1,000 meals each, I wanna have 150 restaurants making 100 meals a week.”
'We adapt to the situation'
Chef José Andrés has been fighting for a decade to help the food insecure. His World Central Kitchen reached out several days into the crisis in Austin. His organization’s experience in global relief efforts served as a boon to the Austin group's infrastructure.
The global nonprofit brought on more restaurants to prepare meals, provided a finance team that coordinated payments and offered administrative support from its headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Andres arrived in Austin on the Feb. 21 and met with Orman and Tedesco at their restaurant. His team’s collaboration with Good Work Austin buoyed and inspired Tedesco and Orman during a week in which all of the days melted and froze back together.
“The hardest part about meeting Jose was that I couldn’t hug him,” Orman said. “If there’s ever a chef idol, it’s him. It was really inspirational to have him show up and sort of bless us and to let the world and the community know that this was a real disaster and needed to be treated as such.”
Andrés has seen all manner of disaster. He co-founded World Central Kitchen in 2010, and his organization has delivered tens of millions of meals to those around the world suffering food and water insecurity brought on by hurricanes, earthquakes, global pandemics and more.
“The premise of World Central Kitchen is that we don’t have a plan. We adapt to the situation,” Andrés told the American-Statesman while visiting Austin.
Andrés said that the situation on the ground in Austin and throughout Texas was made worse by not having a strategic plan in place to empower professionals to prepare and deliver food and water to the community.
“There is a lack of central command to maximize the power of everybody working together," Andrés said.
The Spanish chef said city and state officials need to identify existing spaces, such as school kitchens, that can operate to feed a community. Finger pointing, he said, does not accomplish anything in times of crisis. But these moments should make us ask questions about how prepared we are and what we can do to help.
“Do we have the right management people? Do we have the right emergency people? Do we have the right resources for the response to the emergency?" Andrés said. "Government is everyone. When the government fails, we fail. It requires firefighters, National Guard, police and individuals who want to lend their cars to bring water and food to hospitals. So we need to see in these emergency moments, it requires an entire village coming together strong as one.”
'It was logistically pretty tough'
Carpenters Hall restaurant chef Jorge Luis Hernández is familiar with disaster relief efforts. He ran Andrés' world-renowned Minibar in Washington for several years before returning to Texas to serve as culinary director for the Austin-based the Mighty Union hospitality group, which operates Carpenter Hotel.
The San Antonio native had not had the chance to directly contribute before to the relief work of World Central Kitchen, but he found himself in the middle of the action after the winter storm hit Austin.
The Carpenter received a crush of reservations on Feb. 15. The hotel reached capacity by noon that day, with some of those rooms occupied by Carpenter staff unable to make it home after the roads became treacherous.
Hernández received word that Good Work Austin was strategizing meal delivery and volunteered his and his small staff’s services. Then the hotel lost power for two days. The small kitchen crew continued to cook with gas and also used their outdoor fire pit for an impromptu wintry version of a Hurricane Party, with local AirBnB denizens, neighbors and guests drinking wine and eating baked oysters and clams casino by the fire.
The hotel’s first day without power coincided with what would become a six-day boil-water advisory and the restaurant’s first contribution to the Good Work Austin meal plan. Hernández cooked his mother’s picadillo stew and delivered about 150 meals around town in his car. They cooked a lamb birria tamal on Feb. 17, with the number of meals increasing to 200.
Over the next four days, Hernández and his team ran through their dry goods, cooking dishes, like minestrone for the Good Work Austin effort, while also feeding hotel guests.
“It makes me appreciate any restaurant that does that kind of value. When you’re tired and trying to do the math and trying not to run out of food, it’s hard. It was logistically pretty tough,” Hernández said.
Hernández also received help from another former boss. Andres’ Think Food Group and World Central Kitchen co-founder, Austinite Rob Wilder, and wife, Robin, ran deliveries around town for Carpenters Hall through the weekend.
“I’m really proud of my team and I’m really proud of my friends in this town,” Hernández said. “But that’s obviously paired with the frustration of the fact that why did it have to be me and my friends being the ones to do this?”
The kitchen remained closed to the public for a week as they fed the community and hotel guests. Despite the tough conditions, Hernández said, the crises inspired his team and reinforced their new vision for how they want to approach cooking and providing hospitality.
“We were dancing and singing and making jokes, while obviously being serious at the same time. We were trying to do it from a place that made us feel good,” Hernández said. “We have a saying now at the Carpenter that, ‘If it doesn’t bring us joy, we don’t do it.’”
'It’s far worse than you imagine'
The power had recently returned to chef Michael Fojtasek’s house in South Austin when the owner of Olamaie took his frustration to Instagram. As the warmth flowed back into his home, the chef’s passions ran hot.
“I have no chill remaining,” Fojtasek wrote as a caption accompanying an upside down Instagram photo of a frozen downtown Austin. “For anyone outside of Texas, it’s far worse than you imagine. If you don’t work in hospitality, I promise it’s been a horrific eleven months. Now, the weather and irresponsible resource management are making this moment an extinction level event for many of us.”
The former Food & Wine best new chef would soon have his own resources to manage. Fojtasek’s friend and fellow chef, Ed Lee of Louisville, donated $10,000 to help Fojtasek buy food and pay his staff — some of whom slept at the restaurant to stay warm the week of the storm — to cook meals for those in need. Fojtasek then reached out to his friend Chrissy Kleberg, who spent the next several days raising about $12,000 from friends and family that would also go toward Olamaie’s mission.
Concerned about the damages from the extended hard freeze to local farmers and ranchers, Fojtasek contacted Texas purveyors with whom he had long-standing relationships. He purchased all of the chicken in the freezer at Dewberry Farm in Brookshire, bought another 150 chickens from Westhold Farms in Dripping Springs and eventually purchased 2,200 pounds of produce from local farmers, including Eden East, VRDNT, Steelbow and Hat & Heart.
And his team got cooking. They prepared dishes, like chicken and rice stew and chicken and grits and, over the next four days, Good Work Austin delivered about 1,000 Olamaie-prepared meals to the warming center at the Palmer Events Center. Fojtasek's wife, Anna Margaret Hollyman, coordinated delivery of more than 1,000 more meals to Foundation Communities, Austin ECHO, Any Baby Can and University Christian Church.
Fojtasek’s restaurant has made multiple appearances at the top of the Austin360 Dining Guide’s best restaurants list in years past, but the traumatic and enriching experience of cooking comforting food for people in need reminded the chef that accolades, the approval of well-heeled diners and the gilded trappings of professional service are not the reasons he got into cooking.
“This has been an incredibly enriching experience and, in a lot of ways, brought me back as a cook, because we were cooking food that doesn’t have any pretense associated with it. ... It reminds you that cooking can be fun and help people. This is why I like to cook.” Fojtasek said.
While Fojtasek said he was moved but not surprised by the effort of his friends from Austin restaurants and food businesses who served as an emergency safety net, he thinks the crisis could have been mitigated with proactive decisions by local leaders.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that our city leadership set up shelters and did not consider a food plan until, like, yesterday,” Fojtasek said on Feb. 22. “And that restaurants, who the city has done nothing to help, stepped up and did it.”
Andres, who has expressed frustration with the lack of organization at local and federal levels in preparation for disasters, stopped by Olamaie on his final afternoon in Austin to hang out with Fojtasek and his team and thank them for their efforts. The chef’s words inspired the team, and they also reframed for Fojtasek how to think about crises going forward.
“He said you have to overpower the disaster,” Fojtasek said. “As an independent operator, I don’t think that way. I’ve always considered: How do I operate within a disaster? To put it in those terms really changes your perspective. So that was a really powerful thing to hear in relation to this situation, but also in thinking we can be powerful, we can overcome our challenges.”
'We’re about families'
China Harbor owner Lily Li had never heard of Good Work Austin when the storm put Austin in its icy grip.
The owner of one of Austin’s longest-running Chinese buffets heard about the organization through social media and was referred to the group by the Texas Restaurant Association. China Harbor was one of about 60 restaurants the nonprofit tapped to prepare meals.
When Li opened the doors to her restaurant on the Wednesday following the storm, she realized they still had water and power and she knew they could help the community.
That’s an understatement. The restaurant, which historically relies largely on buffet sales and has suffered a decline of 60% of business since the start of the pandemic, prepared about 2,000 meals during the week that followed the storm and served another 1,000 inside its socially distant dining room to customers, many of whom had lost power and water in their homes.
China Harbor, which has raised its lunch buffet price by only $1 (to $8.99) during its 16-year tenure at William Cannon Drive and Interstate 35, has always prided itself on being an affordable restaurant that serves families. The dire circumstances following the storm reinforced Li’s pride in caring for her community.
“I’ve cried about this before,” Li said the week after the blizzard. “It’s been amazing seeing just how much we can help the community and give back. This is what China Harbor is all about. We’re about families.”
Li said that she was looking forward to continuing her relationship with Good Work Austin.
“We are very lucky to have organizations like Good Work Austin help the restaurant business and our community,” Li said. “It truly means a lot.”
'The Austin community really rallied'
The effort put forth by so many restaurant workers is perhaps all the more touching because they worked relatively anonymously.
They didn’t know exactly who was receiving the meals they prepared, and those on the receiving end did not always have a name or face to attach to the generosity.
And it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that people who needed food were being fed. If the restaurant owners and their teams had been able to take a break from their work and find out who was benefiting, they would have met people like Dr. A Rosenbloom and his patients.
Rosenbloom is a complex care pediatrician at the Children’s Comprehensive Care Clinic, a part of Dell Children’s Medical Group. He lost power for a couple days in the storm, but once he was operational again, he got in touch with the nurses at his clinic who had identified patients who needed food.
Rosenbloom started cold calling restaurants in hopes of finding someone who could donate meals. His effort led to dead ends. His wife, Sera Bonds, had more success. She posted on social media about their situation, and someone from World Central Kitchen saw the message and contacted them with an offer for help.
World Central Kitchen organized 3,350 meals from local restaurants that were delivered directly to 95 families over three days.
The couple’s friends rallied a team of about 100 drivers and created their own dispatch system that took directions on pickup from the WCK team. The team delivered meals from Loro, Salt and Time, Jo’s Coffee, Galaxy Cafe, Casa Chapala, Easy Tiger, Southside Flying Pizza, Sazon, Shlotszky’s, Swift’s Attic and Seoulju to families of children with special needs living in Pflugerville, Leander, Manor, Kyle, Del Valle and Austin.
“The sad part of the story was the realization that nobody’s coming to help us, that we were going to have to help ourselves," Rosenbloom said. "So, the Austin community really rallied. It was an extraordinary effort.”
Rosenbloom delivered some meals, visiting patients in their homes for the first time, where he was met with tears and gratitude.
“I personally felt that I was in this really special place because I have all of these restaurants and all of these volunteers — and nobody knew who they were really serving,” Rosenbloom said. “I knew how special this service was. These really, truly were families that needed the help and were extraordinarily grateful for it.”
Good Work Austin is one of about 700 organizations representing causes across the spectrum of public service, arts and culture that are taking part in this year’s Amplify Austin.
The annual fundraising campaign starts Thursday evening and continues into Friday and has moved to a virtual format this year. The event will feature a livestream with celebrity guests, musical performances, members of the local nonprofit community, businesses and media leaders, and more.
For more information about this year’s event or to donate money to one of hundreds of organizations, visit amplifyatx.com.