On March 17, 2020, the City of Austin issued unprecedented restrictions on bars and restaurants in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The new rules effectively shut down the city’s second largest industry, pushing thousands onto unemployment and sending small business owners scrambling.
At L’Oca d’Oro, one of the city’s prized Italian restaurants, co-owner Adam Orman and chef Fiore Tedesco found themselves at a crossroads. Their dining room and kitchen were both empty for the foreseeable future, but their suppliers, which included local farms and purveyors, were still stocked.
The pair mentioned it during their weekly Zoom call with Good Work Austin, the three-year-old nonprofit founded by the L’Oca crew along with like-minded small businesses and members of Austin’s hospitality scene. The group, eventually known as Good Work, formed in 2017 to advocate for the city’s first paid sick leave ordinance and has continued working with the city on workers’ rights, wage minimums, and other restaurant-related issues.
During their meeting, the group discussed the conundrum — empty kitchens, hungry Austinites — and decided to take action. They tapped United Way for Greater Austin to help access funding, and using a mixture of private donations and grants secured by United Way, Good Work Austin was able to launch Safe Table, a project putting two local restaurants to work preparing 700 meals a week for elderly Austinites who face systemic barriers to accessing food.
Jay Lykins delivers prepared meals to residents at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Building, a housing development for seniors with low incomes or disabilities in downtown Austin. Sandy Karaffa and her dog Buffy greet Lykins as goes door to door.
Jay Lykins wheels a cart of prepared meals into the elevator at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Building, a housing development for seniors with low incomes or disabilities in downtown Austin. Lykins will work his way down all 18 floors of the building to deliver the meals to residents.
With the funding, Haydostian was able to add a few more hires to his skeleton crew, who now wake up at 7 am to make, package, and deliver meals six days a week to Safe Table, where their meals are then delivered directly to the apartment doors of RBJ residents.
“Right now it’s awesome, I have purpose, so that’s a whole new level of love and passion for what we’re doing,” Haydostian says.
But the restaurateur is also aware how precarious his situation has become and just how much it will take to keep his dream alive.
“I’ve been a chef for 17 years and I’ve always dreamt of having my own restaurant, and I’ll sacrifice anything to make my dreams come true,” says Haydostian. “I’ve applied to every single credit card I can get. That’s how I keep the restaurant going.”
Lupe Fabian has lived in an apartment at the RBJ building for the past eight years. His primary source of income is his social security check, and he makes jewelry that he sometimes sells or gives away. The meals he receives as part of the Safe Table initiative provide a supplement to his diet and his income.
Lupe Fabian has lived in an apartment at the RBJ building for the past eight years. His primary source of income is his social security check, and he makes jewelry that he sometimes sells or gives away. The meals he receives three days a week provide a supplement to his diet and his income.
By mid-summer, the nonprofit had secured contracts with both the Austin Independent School District and Austin Public Health, supplying daily meals for school children out of local kitchens like L’Oca d’Oro, Colleen’s Kitchen, Contigo, Rosedale Kitchen, Chez Zee, and Swift’s Attic. Within weeks, the restaurants were producing 25,000 meals a week for about $5 a meal.
“Finding something predictable, finding something consistent, even if you’re being paid five dollars a meal, is a win,” says Orman.
A transition this big was not without its challenges. In the early days, chef Tedesco even struggled to find a pot in the L’Oca kitchen big enough to produce the amount of sauce needed for one meal.
“The first couple of weeks were just such a disaster,” Orman laughs, “figuring out the right packaging so the food looks good, so the food isn’t leaking, so it’s not taking up too much space, and to still do it in compostable packaging and paying everyone well.”