Restaurants fighting to stay open fundraise, focus on feeding front-line workers

"To do something nice is extremely emotionally gratifying," said Keivan Tayeb.

Like thousands of restaurants across the United States, Andiamo, an Italian restaurant in New Jersey, has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly half its staff has been laid off.

“We have struggled and fought to maintain our kitchen staff, and even pay them out of our pockets so they can support their families,” Alan Dickstein, co-owner of Andiamo, told “Nightline.”

With the restaurant being a fixture in Haworth, New Jersey, for 30 years, Bari Adler, a regular at Andiamo, wanted to figure out a way to help. The plan she came up with had two goals: keeping the restaurant’s doors open and feeding the people working on the frontlines against the coronavirus, COVID-19.

“I kind of had the idea that maybe we would pay a restaurant, give [the] restaurant income to send meals to the [emergency room] to give thanks to [hospital staff] for working while the rest of us were at home,” Adler told “Nightline.”

Adler connected with a local mom’s group to set up a fundraiser. Then, after raising $1,600, she asked the owners of Andiamo if they would help with the effort to cook and deliver meals to Englewood Health in Englewood, New Jersey.

“Our town is a really active community of moms and everyone’s really responsive and helpful to each other. … We had raised enough money to deliver 40 lunches to the ER for the day shift and then 40 dinners for the night shift,” Adler said.

Just a couple miles away from Andiamo, in the town of Closter, Nicholas Mrnarevic, co-owner and head chef at Buon Gusto, has teamed up with two other restaurant owners, Joseph Diovisalvo and Keivan Tayeb, to also provide meals to health care workers. They named themselves the “Durie Ave. Takeout Squad” after the street on which their restaurants are located.

On March 26, he said the squad was getting ready to prepare 100 meals for health care workers at Englewood Health.

“The reason we decided to help health care workers is because they are literally on the frontlines,” Mrnarevic said. “They’re fighting this fight every single day. Sometimes they go six or seven days without stopping. … Literally putting their lives on the line to ensure that we are safe.”

Tayeb, owner of Zendiggi Kebab House and part of the squad, spoke about the appreciation he has for the community.

“The situation in the hospital is very tense, and to be able to do something nice is extremely emotionally gratifying for me. … [I’m] super grateful to be open, to be operating and supported by the community,” Tayeb said.

“I’m really proud of the fact that Nick, Keivan and I have stuck together in this,” Diovisalvo, owner of the Vietnamese Ma Mi Eatery, added. “Usually, the restaurant industry is very competitive.”

With the coronavirus shutting down so many restaurants, others have banded together, too.

In New York City, Luca Di Pietro, founder of Tarallucci e Vino restaurant group, got together with friends and family to create Feed the Frontlines NYC. The organization, which includes Di Pietro’s five restaurants and other New York City restaurants, has already raised more than $1 million and delivered over 32,000 meals to health care workers at several hospitals around the city.

Di Pietro, who said he had to lay off 95 of his employees, has also been able to rehire 35 of them.

“In difficult times like these, people want to help and find a purpose,” Di Pietro said. “We found one.”

His daughter, 22-year-old Isabella Di Pietro, is co-founder of the organization and says that even though things have been difficult, the experience has brought her family closer together.

“It’s hard to know what the future of this organization is given that everything is so unpredictable at the moment," she said. “But we’ll continue to work as a family to make this happen.”

In New Orleans, Tom Ramsey, chef de cuisine at Galliano, has been hard at work cooking and delivering meals to local hospitals.

“It feels good to be working, but it’s just a mixed bag of emotions because we’re doing something good but, I mean, my whole staff is laid off. I feel good that I still have got a job. I feel guilty I’m still working and so many people are out of work,” Ramsey said. “This is hard. … I’m just going to get back up tomorrow morning and get back at it. So, trying to stay safe and keep people fed.”

While some restaurants have covered the meals for front-line workers, other people are doing what they can.

In Elmhurst, New York, the local Tibetan Women’s Association has been delivering momo dumplings to Elmhurst Hospital, which had previously been called “ground zero” for COVID-19 in New York City. The momos, a comfort food for Tibetans, come with messages of hope.

“Thank you so much for everything you do. We are immensely grateful for your courage during this time,” one donor wrote.

"May the strength you give during this time repay you with kindness and love in the future," another one said. "We appreciate not only your service but your commitment to the people of New York."

At Modcup Coffee in Jersey City, New Jersey, owner Travas Clifton recently donated 200 pounds of freshly roasted cold brew to help keep first responders energized. Clifton said he's launching a new website in the upcoming weeks where health care workers will be able to sign up for free instant coffee delivered to their homes. He said that for every person who buys instant coffee from Modcup, the shop will donate one, too.

Uncertain when their restaurants will open up again, these owners are banking on a new business plan for the meantime. And with people like Adler stepping in for the community, their efforts may just get them through the pandemic.

“If we all do a tiny bit, we can really make a big impact on other people’s lives. I’ve already seen that,” Adler said. “I think this is going to be an opportunity for neighbors to really help neighbors, and I think when this is all done, we are going to come out stronger.”