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Restaurants flood hospitals with food donations, despite hardships

From Boston Children’s to South Shore, hospital workers are thankful

“People who work at the hospitals work very, very hard, and I want to help.” says Tokuma Kobayashi, owner of the Japanese restaurant Red White,
“People who work at the hospitals work very, very hard, and I want to help.” says Tokuma Kobayashi, owner of the Japanese restaurant Red White,Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

When a friend told Tokuma Kobayashi last week that workers at a local hospital needed food amid the pandemic, the Japanese-restaurant owner donated 150 meals, without hesitation.

His readiness to give belies the fact that times are tough at Red White on Newbury Street. Kobayashi had to let go of seven employees because of the coronavirus crisis and its devastating impact on the restaurant industry.

While his Boston restaurant is barely surviving, Kobayashi said he doesn’t have time to worry about his own hardships — he’s far more concerned about hospital workers having healthy food.

“I have to pay for the rent . . . but it’s OK, I don’t care," he said. “People who work at the hospitals work very, very hard, and I want to help.”

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Though they are hurting, many Massachusetts restaurants are finding ways to feed workers on the front lines of the pandemic, putting their own financial woes on the back burner.

At Ariana Restaurant, a family-owned Afghani eatery in Brighton, revenue is expected to be down by 90 percent for the month of April, co-owner Baheja Rostami said.

“We don’t have that many take-outs or deliveries — most of our customers liked to come in and sit down,” Rostami said.

Despite the painfully slow business putting a strain on the restaurant’s bottom line, Rostami said she desperately wants to help others.

“My husband and I have been watching the news and seeing what doctors, nurses, and health care professionals are going through,” she said. “They all have families like us, and they are putting their lives at risk.”

Rostami contacted Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, and now Ariana is listed on a database of restaurants offering free or discounted meals to front-line workers. For now, the restaurant is eagerly awaiting its first order.

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“I can’t wait,” Rostami said. “We want to do something so they can go to work and not worry about lunch — it’s just something to cheer them up, if we can.”

Some restaurants are partnering with larger organizations that handle fund-raising and delivery logistics for hospital donations.

Zaftigs Delicatessen in Brookline partnered with Heal with a Meal, a recently created GoFundMe campaign launched by two local families, and donated 80 meals to Massachusetts General Hospital last week.

“I wish I had deeper pockets and that we could initiate things like this on our own,” said Zaftigs owner Robert Shuman, who had to lay off 92 employees in March. “We have always worked on thin margins — the restaurant business is known for that.”

Heal with a Meal has raised nearly $25,000 and donated over 1,000 meals and gift cards to multiple hospitals, including Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital Needham. The campaign pays restaurants around $1,000 for each delivery, which can range from 40 to 100 meals.

“Restaurants want to be able to do their part and help support hospitals, but they are hurting right now, as well,” said Jared Wilk, cofounder of the campaign. “Once they hear that we are fully funding the order . . . they are so touched and thrilled.”

There are several other grassroots fund-raising campaigns across the state, such as Feed The Front Lines Boston and Off Their Plate.

Red White organized its own GoFundMe campaign and is looking for donations so that it can continue delivering meals to hospitals.

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“The hospitals said next week they need food, too,” Kobayashi said. “But we need some donations — we have to buy the vegetables, the bowls, the rice, everything.”

Kobayashi said donations could help him bring back his staff in the future — right now it’s just him, a manager, and one staff member.

“I told my employees, 'Can you wait a little bit?’ ” he said. “I want to help them also. It is impossible to do everything, but I want to do everything.”

At South Shore Hospital, donations from restaurants have become so frequent that a makeshift planning center has been set up in a conference room, where two employees coordinate deliveries on a whiteboard master calendar.

“All of a sudden it was multiple calls a day, and it wasn’t a dozen meals, it was 200 or more,” said Katie Daly, a clinical liaison who now oversees delivery logistics.

Katie Daly was planning meal distribution in a conference room at South Shore Hospital.
Katie Daly was planning meal distribution in a conference room at South Shore Hospital.South Shore Health

Daly and a colleague collect and distribute hundreds of daily donations that range from breakfast sandwiches to full dinners. Last week, there was a day when the hospital received 700 meals within an hour.

“We got people as they were coming off of their shift, and to be there with all these meals as people were heading home, to say, ‘Hey, do you have dinner tonight? Take your pick’ . . . I get choked up thinking about it,” Daly said. “Everyone has really long days, they are working so hard.”

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Daly said hospital workers are especially touched by the influx of donations, which have been nonstop since the beginning of April.

“You see nurses well up with tears because they haven’t had five minutes to go downstairs to get something to eat,” she said. “They can’t believe all these people in the community are thinking about them and took the time to thank them for doing something they do every day.”

Hospital workers posed with a cart of bagged lunches that were donated to South Shore Hospital.
Hospital workers posed with a cart of bagged lunches that were donated to South Shore Hospital.South Shore Health

Erika Cadena, a patient experience representative at Boston Children’s Hospital, said food deliveries have been coming into her unit almost daily during the pandemic.

“To me it really means a lot. I know everyone’s struggling during this time, and to see people and companies donate food to hospital workers is amazing,” she wrote in an e-mail between busy shifts at the hospital.

Daly said restaurants should expect hospital workers to frequent their businesses in person as soon as they are able to.

“[Staff] will call us and say, ‘Where was that pasta from? It was delicious,’ ” she said. “Some people have never been to these restaurants, and they are saying they can’t wait to visit them when this is all over.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.