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Bay Area restaurant workers that have been let go or furloughed from their jobs due to the pandemic don’t have to worry where their next meal will come from.
Chef Nelson German, owner of alaMar Kitchen & Bar in Oakland, has turned his restaurant into a relief center for industry workers in need of a free meal.
“It takes a very unique person to work in the hospitality business,” German said. “I want to help out people in the business who are in need.”
Under normal circumstances, German enjoys having a family style meal with his staff before dinner service. But since COVID-19 has forced restaurant operations to shift, German feels that providing free meals to those in need is an extension of this tradition.
“We are all eating together, even though we are sheltering in place together,” he said.
alaMar serves around 100 free meals every Wednesday through Sunday, but German’s goal is to serve 300 meals per day — a feat he can easily achieve if he can assuage a bit of fear and hesitation from certain members of the restaurant community. According to the chef, undocumented restaurant workers in the area have voiced concerns over feeling safe enough to take one of alaMar’s free meals and would rather refrain from participating in the food program than risk exposure. But German wants to reassure all members of the food industry that he and alaMar are just here to help.
“We are not checking IDs … there is nothing to be afraid of. We want you to come by, pickup a nice meal and enjoy it,” he said.
Meals change daily and so far the Niman Ranch meatloaf has been a crowd favorite, followed closely by the gnocchi with chicken and cherry tomatoes accompanied by a french roll from Oakland’s Firebrand Artisan Breads. All meals are funded by The LEE Initiative — a nonprofit that aims to bring equality and diversity to the restaurant industry — and sponsored by Maker’s Mark, and other corporate donors, as part of a nationwide restaurant workers relief effort.
The National Restaurant Association reports that two-thirds of the industry’s workforce (equivalent to more than 8 million employees) are unemployed due to the pandemic. One such employee, Hana Yoshimoto, has worked in the Bay Area food and beverage industry for the last seven years. She had just started an assistant manager position at a San Francisco eatery when shelter-in-place orders were issued and she was subsequently laid-off.
“I was extremely paycheck to paycheck,” Yoshimoto said of her living situation before losing her job. As her situation became even more financially precarious, especially while waiting for her unemployment and stimulus checks, Yoshimoto participated in the free program at alaMar and found a bit of relief during a stressful time. And when her benefits finally kicked in she wanted to pay it forward and support her colleagues in the industry by volunteering at alaMar, prepping and handing out meals to others.
Thankful for having the option to receive a free meal when she needed it, Yoshimoto said German’s contributions are typical of the camaraderie found within the restaurant industry.
“You’ll meet someone who is a bartender, server or cook, and there is this understanding of what it’s like to work under a high amount of [stress],” she said, and chef German’s program is just an extension of that fellowship.
In addition to its meal relief program, alaMar is open for regular service for takeout and delivery. While no registration or identification is required for a free meal, proof of employment in the form of a pay stub must be provided.