Seattle restaurants are keeping hospital staff fed — and picking up the tab

Cooking up excess food also keeps workers paid during coronavirus closures.

Chefs preparing food

Charles Dobbins, regional chef at Matador restaurants, prepares meals to deliver to Swedish Medical Center, March 17, 2020. Many Seattle restaurants and bars were ordered to close to dine-in customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving kitchens with extra of food on hand. (All photos by Shaminder Dulai/Crosscut)

On Tuesday, the Matador restaurant’s kitchen in Ballard was getting ready for the lunch rush. Two chefs worked steadily to fill 75 individual meal boxes with chips, salsa and burritos — mostly chicken, some vegan. But out in the dining area, all tables sat empty. Instead of taking orders from customers, workers were disinfecting, sanding and repainting the thick wood tabletops.

“We’re keeping people employed and refreshing all of our stores,” Matador owner Zak Melang says in his North Carolina accent. He opened the Ballard Matador in 2004 and has since expanded to nine Matador restaurants across four states, with four in Washington and two in Oregon.

On a busy night shift at Matador, peak staff might include two bartenders, three hosts and four waiters. But on Tuesday morning, Melang was drafting a companywide letter to announce 400 sudden layoffs because of mandatory coronavirus closures.

So instead of feeding a young crowd of Mexican-inspired food and tequila fans, Matador, like many local restaurants, is pivoting. The 75 meal boxes were headed for a short drive down the road to Swedish Medical Center’s Ballard campus, where all four of Melang’s children were born.

“We have a lot of food we can't sell,” Melang says. “We first reached out to the local school, but we had a difficult time getting a hold of someone. The hospital was easy for us. They know us.”

(Medical workers at Swedish were unavailable for comment regarding the food delivery — for obvious reasons.)

Instead of letting all the food (including chicken, beef, pork and fresh produce) go to waste, Melang is donating the food to hospital workers on the front lines of the pandemic. That way, he says, he can keep some of his salaried employees working. On Wednesday, Matador delivered another 75 meals. If such donations become more routine, Melang says, he can begin offering hours back to some of the employees who were laid off.

Puspita Majumdar, center, and others from Swedish Medical Center in Ballard applaud, from left, Charles Dobbins and Darren Lee of Matador restaurants for donating 75 prepared meals to the medical staff, March 17, 2020. "Some of them are working all day and night," Dobbins said,  referring to the nonstop response of health workers navigating COVID-19. "We're preparing a little chips and salsa and burritos to help them."

Although the Matador does offer takeout, Melang says it accounts for only about 5% of business, and it’s too early to tell whether that will change.

“It’s certainly not worth it to keep the restaurants open to just do to-go food, but we have to still provide jobs,” Melang says.

Before Gov. Jay Inslee closed all restaurants, bars and gathering spaces, each Matador restaurant had enough food stocked to generate $60,000 to $70,000 in sales per week.

“It would be a tragedy if people started throwing out food,” Melang says. “There’s so much available food in this city that could be used. Restaurateurs are either not thinking about it or don’t know how to do it — and that might be a good initiative.”

The owner says he is brainstorming with Matador kitchen staff in Redmond and Tacoma on how to offer food to the hospitals closest to those locations. And Melang isn’t the only restaurateur making meals for hospital workers, some of the most essential and overworked staff during this time. 

Melang’s wife, Renessa Melang, received nearly 1,000 likes within two hours on a Facebook post calling on other restaurants to begin a meal train for hospital workers. She hopes they can get the whole restaurant community to help out with donations by organizing which days contributing restaurants would deliver their own food.

“Trying to prepackage each meal is an issue for most,” Renessa said by text, “so a meal train Matador will run can reach a bigger hospital audience.”

Restaurants around the city are quickly adjusting to food service in the time of coronavirus. The high-end Canlis has transformed into a drive-thru burger and bagel joint. On Beacon Hill, Filipino restaurant Musang switched from table service to community kitchen. In Ballard and Kent, the Mexican steakhouse Asadero is selling its stock of grade A meats (raw or cooked), from Japanese wagyu to tenderloin and New York steaks, at a discount of up to 60% for certain cuts.

But, like Matador, several other spots are making medical workers their VIP guests. 

The London Plane usually serves artisanal meals to customers in the light-filled Pioneer Square cafe. But on Wednesday it delivered lunch to hospital workers at the University of Washington Medical Center, earning an outburst of appreciation on social media.

“Thank you SO MUCH for the lunches delivered to the UW Medical Center today!!” wrote one medical center nurse on Instagram. “It brightened the day for everyone and brought many smiles. We appreciate you.”

The restaurant hopes to send 1,600 meals per day to hospital staff for at least a week. With cost estimates of $10,000 per day for goods and labor, The London Plane started a GoFundMe campaign to request help from the wider community. So far the effort has raised $30,000.

Even the upscale Herbfarm in Woodinville is getting in on the donation action. The legendary pioneer in farm-to-table dining is delivering three-course meals to hospital workers. On Monday, the menu included a mushroom omelet, beef hash and a rhubarb tart.

“The rhubarb tart smelled so good and looked so good,” says co-owner Carrie Van Dyck. She had to fight the impulse to eat one.

If The Herbfarm can secure enough funding on its GoFundMe page (which has raised more than $34,000), Van Dyck says the restaurant plans to deliver more than 1,000 meals per week to hospital workers. So far, it has delivered hundreds of meals to Overlake Medical Center, Swedish Hospital and EvergreenHealth. In addition, the restaurant was able to bring two employees back to work this week: a sous chef and longtime dishwasher.

Van Dyck says the shift from nine-course prix fixe dinner restaurant to three-course meal delivery service just makes sense during the crisis. “We want to give joy to hospital workers — who have to wear that gear all day long, and are tired at the end of the day — and give them something good to eat.”

Swedish Medical Center staff wheel a tray of Matador-donated meals donated toward the emergency room, March 17, 2020. Many health workers haven't been able to leave the hospital and are putting in longer than normal hours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on arts and culture.