Sometimes, the best humanitarian gestures are topped with pepperoni and arrive in large, square boxes.
Weeks into the national pandemic, restaurants around Richmond continue to rally to feed those on the front lines, from medical personnel to first responders.
Restaurants like Marco’s Pizza, Lehja and Inchin Bamboo Garden, plus organizations such as the Underground Kitchen, are all working to provide meals that keep workers nourished on the job or even after they head home and don’t have the energy to cook.
“It’s hard to put into words. They’re incredibly grateful,” Lisa Patten, executive director of the Evelyn D. Reinhart Guest House at St. Mary’s Hospital, said about the medical personnel who receive free meals.
“Their faces light up because they are tired, concerned, and when you get free food delivered ... it means the world to them,” she said. “It’s giving us all a sense of hope. This greater humanity that is existing and thriving right now, it’s really heartwarming.”
Sara Ragsdale and her husband own the Richmond-area Marco’s Pizza franchise. In the last few weeks, they’ve delivered upward of 800 pizzas to people all around the area, including the Richmond Ambulance Authority .
“We’re just trying to do our part to show appreciation toward the brave men and women who are staying on the front lines,” Ragsdale said . She said the company plans to continue donating pizzas until the stay-at-home mandates are lifted.
During long bleak shifts, free pizza can be a morale booster.
“They’re tired and they’re grateful to be fed,” she said. “They eat our pizza, so we just want to support them.”
Micheal Sparks, founder of the Underground Kitchen, said the nature of his company, which offers lavish pop-up dining experiences, is uniquely positioned to feed a lot of people in a short time, whether it’s his $150 ticketed events or giving out meals to the public.
He relies on his vast network of local chefs to take turns making soups and breads as part of UGK’s “Community Comes First” food relief program, which he started to feed first responders and hospitals, but also others in need of food.
Chefs include the Graduate Richmond’s Jason Bullard; The Mantu’s Hamid Noori; Ladonte Cooper, owner of Heart ‘n Soul, a personal chef service; and more.
In recent days, he’s partnered with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which is allowing his team to work within five of its local church kitchens — St. Stephen’s, Grace & Holy Trinity, St. Paul’s and more — to cook and prep food for deliveries.
Despite being among the throngs of small businesses struggling to exist, Sparks said he’ll continue feeding people until donations — his main source of funding — runs out. He said he hopes companies step up with corporate donations to keep it going.
Just last week, containers of homemade cream of potato and ham, turkey chili and other freshly made soups were packaged and sent out. The soups are free-range and organic whenever possible.
“This situation is so serious,” he said. “There are so many people hurting.”
Patten, of St. Mary’s Hospital, said it’s important that those who wish to help coordinate with hospitals and agencies first so that everyone remains safe and food doesn’t go to waste.
“We want to make sure we’re being good stewards. That’s something that’s very important to us,” she said. “Everyone’s afraid. We get it, [and] we want to be careful ... and ensure their safety and make it a positive experience.”
Sunny Baweja, owner of Lehja, said he let his heart dictate his actions. As a struggling business owner, the thought of giving away food wasn’t a good idea. Last week was his second week offering free meals, and he said the response has been strong. He’s offering either a chicken or vegetarian option.
“We had zero idea how it was going to go,” he said about the first week. But “with so much negativity, I want to be positive.”
“Your heart wants to do it,” he said.
Richmonder and local restaurant lover Brock Saunders has launched his own initiative to help feed folks in need, be it hospital workers, unemployed people or children once reliant on schools for meals.
Saunders and his wife, Alexandra — the Saunders Family Foundation — have launched #SaveRVARestaurants, a drive to support Richmond restaurants by fundraising to buy meals and then downstate those meals to folks in need.
“Our mission is to purchase $100,000 of food from RVA restaurants in the next 30 days and donate those meals to people in need — kids once reliant on schools for food, displaced workers, or anyone who needs a bit of extra help,” Saunders said.
To get it started, the foundation has pledged to order $10,000 of food from local restaurants, plus a 25% gratuity, and to donate those meals to folks in need.
“We know things will get better. We know the curve will flatten as people practice social distancing. We hope the government helps. But the question is, when? Our independent restaurants and small businesses are the fabric of our city and they need our help NOW,” Saunders said.
Now he wants to get others signed on to help. Those who are interested in donating or learning more can visit littlehandsva.org/savervarestaurants.