Tracy Chang, 33, is redefining the roles restaurants play in a post-COVID world. She spearheaded two non-profits through Pagu, her Japanese restaurant in Central Square, since the dawn of the pandemic. Off Their Plate provides meals to frontline health care workers, paying otherwise out-of-work cooks to make them. Project Restore Us delivers groceries and provisions to families and neighborhoods in need, while also paying restaurant workers to pack the boxes. Volunteer drivers provide contact-free delivery; vulnerable people can stay home and avoid long grocery lines. Now she’s thinking longer-term about what those initiatives can mean.
She also has a newborn and a 15-month-old, but her work “keeps me going and fuels me to get up every day. I’m lucky that my kids sleep. My kid sleeps four hours at a time, and it’s not that bad,” she says, laughing.
Restaurant work is in her blood: Her grandmother ran Cambridge landmark Tokyo on the Fresh Pond Parkway.
Walk me through the status of Pagu and how have things been going the past few months.
I think it’s hard to talk about the past few months without mentioning a little bit extra about the past year. I think exactly a year ago today we sent out our first 90 meals to frontline workers at Brigham and Women’s. But pretty much since the government shut down in-person dining a year ago, we have done all sorts of things to be creative in continuing Pagu.
First and foremost, that has meant keeping our employees safe. We’ve never deviated from that mission — and then figuring out, OK, what kind of models work to keep our employees employed and safe at the same time. And so we’ve created a bunch of different kinds of community work as well as revenue streams. We’ve launched two nonprofits, the first being Off Their Plate and the second being Project Restore Us.
With the first one, we’re feeding health care workers on the front lines. With Project Restore Us, we’re continuing to pack groceries for essential-worker families in need. We realized that while it was replicable model to provide hot meals to either people on the front lines or community centers, homeless shelters, et cetera, groceries actually go a lot further in providing people with the ability to create their own hot meals — and for a longer duration of time because food insecurity has doubled in the past year.
Even in a city as affluent as Cambridge, one in eight families is food insecure. And then if you’re looking at where our essential worker populations reside, like Chelsea, Dorchester, et cetera, those numbers are even more concerning, at one in four families.
What else have you done at the restaurant to reach customers?
In addition to that, we’ve also done things like takeout; we’ve collaborated with a lot of other restaurants to do various takeout series. Most recently, for International Women’s Day, we worked with 16 restaurant operators total, all female, to do a takeout series called Let’s Talk Womxn Boston. So that was a one-off, but also: Let’s see if there are other ways to lift up other female entrepreneurs and hospitality entrepreneurs during this time. We started suburban pickups and deliveries where we take our products and drop them off for preorders in suburban spots like Lexington, Melrose, Brookline, Newton. That was an idea that one of my regulars had proposed. And we did takeout and we did patio. We have seven different businesses, and we’re a restaurant that’s been around for four years, and in a neighborhood that has been deeply affected by COVID.
How has your business specifically been affected by the pandemic?
A lot of our business is event space, it’s weddings, it’s board meetings, it’s happy hours. And all that just went away in the past year. It’s not safe to gather, and also those businesses are now work-from-home, probably indefinitely. Even if they do come back, they won’t come back at 100 percent capacity, ever. And even though schools are back in session, you know, it’s not at the same capacity levels, either. We really have to adjust our various business models to work and to work in a way that’s safe for our employees.
The Central Square Business Improvement District has been awesome. And the City of Cambridge has made testing quite accessible to the general public. We provide as much as we can for our employees. We provide groceries. We limit their exposure to having to go out to their local bodega or out to their pharmacy, because those are just bottlenecks. I drive through Chelsea and Revere and through Everett every single morning, and I see the lines. The lines are for food banks, the lines are for Salvation Army, the lines are for testing, and probably soon vaccination lines as well.
Those lines also create bottlenecks and opportunity for people to get exposed and also are only available to those who can physically be in line. Project Restore Us actually delivers door to door, and so we do all the logistics. We have restaurants pack the groceries. All the restaurants involved with us are female-owned, by women of color. And we just hope that all of this is enough.
Given the non-traditional things that you’re working on, going above and beyond what a traditional restaurant has done in the past in terms of activism and community outreach and support, what role do you think restaurants will play in Boston in a post-pandemic world?
I think our situation was unique in terms of our decisions to do all of the things I just mentioned. And people are like, ‘Oh, well, why did you do that?’ Some people have been around for 10-plus years, or they’re in an area that’s really great for takeout, because it’s super-residential. I’m not envious of their ability to do $10,000 a night in takeout. It’s just not where my business is located. And it’s just not where my business is at, in terms of that kind of a draw. There’s only so much marketing and community-building you can do to get your ticket sales as high as possible. We just weren’t at that 10k level.
That really forced us to be creative. Other people have been creative, selling cocktails, creating subscription models, all different kinds of creativity. And I think we turned to the community work, because, really, I was just looking at what my employees needed and what their communities needed. They were about to hurt so much more than my business could ever hurt.
My business could have closed and went under and gone bankrupt. But these people were about to lose their homes or their family members to sickness. I felt like that was more urgent than floating a business I created four years ago. What’s the life of a four-year-old business compared to the lives of many immigrants who have given up everything they had to come here?
Back to your question of will restaurants’ purposes transform and will that linger post-COVID: I hope so. You’ve seen restaurants turn into grocery outposts. You’ve seen them turn into places where people can get free meals. I don’t know how many people are doing the work and the scale of work that we’re doing. We’re trying to spread it to more restaurants. The funding is not easy. It’s entirely run by volunteers. It’s super grassroots. But, you know, like, we plan to continue doing that work, as long as it is needed, because we realize that restaurants are able to provide at a capacity greater than just putting food out for people who want to pay for it. We’re able to reach populations who need it more.
What’s on your mind, given the killings in Atlanta last week, as a business owner in the Asian community?
I guess I hadn’t thought much about how it impacts me personally, versus, ‘Oh, yes, we do need to speak out about this. We do need to speak out, you know, for Asian-Americans as a whole.’ And then one of my friends actually asked me last night. She said, ‘Have you talked to your family about it?’ And I was like, ‘You know, I haven’t.’ And I think it’s because people just wouldn’t be surprised — not in an intentionally insensitive way, but just because this has been happening. It’s a little more, I think, blown up in the media now, because of the year that we’ve been having and because the existence of social media and other media channels. But, you know, in my parents’ and in my grandparents’ experience in this country, as immigrants, they’ve experienced this kind of behavior. This is not news to them. This is not a first-time occurrence for them.
I actually told my friend about how my grandmother who used to own a restaurant in Cambridge had been targeted, specifically, because she was an Asian-American and because she was a restaurant owner. At that time in the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of restaurants were operating on cash and not so much credit cards. And because of that, she had been robbed multiple times, in her home. And she has been tied up and beaten over the head.
This is in what we would consider very safe places in Lexington and Winchester. I mean, I’m sure it could still happen in Lexington and Winchester, but it’s probably not as commonplace to see this type of robbery, where people are assaulted and tied up. And they had experienced that multiple times. I remember my mom telling me about that as a kid. We’re a bit hardened by it. The news is not news to us.
Looking ahead, what would you want readers to know? What’s not getting covered enough? What do you wish that readers understood that maybe they don’t? What is being talked about in the restaurant world that you’d like to get across?
I think people want to do good and echo the news and echo that they’re in solidarity. But that doesn’t mean anything — just an Instagram story that disappears after 24 hours. Right? That’s not that effective and helpful.
I just wish that there were people who would, you know, actually take action and not just say it. Put your money where your mouth is; put money into those organizations that are actually helping the victims, versus just saying, ‘Oh, hey, I have an Asian friend. I have a Black friend.’ Go help them. If you don’t have the time to physically help, donate money.
On a lighter note, how are you balancing all this work with a newborn?
I have good health. I have the support of my husband and my parents and my aunt. We have a lot of good help. There’s no secret to it. People say that so often: ‘work-life balance.’ And I know that there are certainly moments in the past four years where I’m like, ‘Oh, yes, I should have taken that break, and gone and done this thing, or traveled or whatever it is.’ But my work is my life, and my life is my work. More than anything, I think that the work that we have done in the past year has been more meaningful than a lot of the work that we’ve done prior to that, and that’s something I’m proud of.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.