As the owner and chef at PAGU, a Japanese tapas restaurant in Cambridge, Tracy Chang says she always believed that “our core tenets were food, community, and collaboration.” But as the COVID-19 pandemic upended her business, that concept evolved in ways she never expected. “We are still feeding people, but it’s changed to feeding people who need to eat instead of people who want to eat,” Chang said in an interview with the Globe’s Bold Types video series.
PAGU closed its doors in March of 2020, and soon after, Chang started partnering with her neighbors in Cambridge — many of them scientists and other academics who are her patrons — to create safety protocols to help keep restaurant workers safe. But the Eureka moment came when one of Chang’s regular customers, a medical student, approached her with an idea: If shuttered restaurants could help feed front-line health care workers overwhelmed by the COVID-19 surge, it might provide an opportunity to keep restaurant workers employed.
Chang began by starting a prototype, but the idea quickly took off: She served 1,000 meals to hospitals the first week. That concept eventually became Off Their Plate, and quickly spread throughout Boston, then nationwide. To date, it has facilitated the distribution of over 763,000 meals in 473 communities.
But Off Their Plate was one of two nonprofits that Chang founded out of her restaurant during the pandemic.
The second was Project Restore Us, which works to supply groceries to restaurant workers who were struggling to make ends meet. Using her connections with food suppliers, Chang transformed PAGU into a warehouse stacked with bags of flour, produce, and other staples. Partnering with other restaurants nearby, she and a team of volunteers now pack grocery boxes and deliver them to restaurant workers in some of the communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Chang has also used her platform as a local business owner to speak out against the recent spike in racist attacks against Asian Americans. “These acts of violence, they are not OK, and we do need to bring it to the forefront,” she said. “We need to come together with our community members … and be in solidarity.”
Chang said that even as she opens her doors to patrons again, she’s committed to continuing her work for the community. “I view it as necessary,” she says. “These communities will continue to feel the impact of COVID even after the pandemic is over.”