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Without Diners, NYC Restaurants Pivot to Feeding Hospital Workers

Restaurants are serving bento boxes, pizzas, and rice bowls to NYC’s overwhelmed health care workers

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A long wooden table with bento box-style meals lined up on it
Taiwanese restaurant 886 is serving bento boxes to a dozen hospitals in the city
Eric Sze

While restaurants and bars are still reeling from the shutdown on dining in and most have closed temporarily, the ones that remain open are mobilizing with efforts to feed health care workers at hospitals across the city who are on the frontlines of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Tuesday morning, NYC’s coronavirus cases had soared past 38,000 with 914 deaths. The city’s hospitals are overwhelmed — there’s now a makeshift hospital in Central Park and a ship with 1,000 beds docked on the west side today — and its health care workers have been pushed to the limits, with many not finding the time to step outside for meals.

In lieu of running business as usual, many NYC restaurateurs are now diverting their energy toward feeding hospital workers. Eric Sze, the man behind the East Village Taiwanese restaurant 886, says he and his business partner Andy Chuang were discussing ways to help hospital workers when they heard of the need for meals. Sze contacted a friend at New York Presbyterian’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, who was delighted at the prospect, he says.

The delivery plan was made possible by a surplus of funds the restaurant had recently gained due the generosity of regular customers. A little more than a week ago, Sze started accepting funds for his staff of seven who were still working as the restaurant pivoted to delivery- and takeout-only after the shutdown on dining-in went into effect on March 16. Sze needed $7,000 to pay his staff, but more than $20,000 in donations poured in over the week.

The chef decided to use the surplus to create microwaveable bento boxes for hospital workers. It started with Sze dropping off food at Weill Cornell, on the Upper East Side, and as of Friday last week, Sze had served more than 875 bento boxes to 12 different hospitals in the city.

An image of a ladle pouring sauce over a bowl with rice and vegetables in it
Bento boxes being prepared at 886 prior to delivery
Eric Sze

The outpouring of support has led to even more food for hospital workers. Neighborhood Taiwanese restaurant Ho Foods and Japanese restaurant Raku have joined in on the bento box cooking. The donations help those restaurants pay some of their staff as well, but all three are now solely focused on feeding health care workers and have temporarily paused deliveries to the public because the demand for hospital meals takes up all of their time. They’ve raised more than $28,000 in donations and plan to deliver bento boxes to two hospitals everyday.

“I have never experienced anything like this, but this is the most fulfilled I’ve been,” Sze tells Eater.

It’s an impulse that others across the city have, too. Anthony Coku, who runs the Crown Heights pizzeria Billy Pizza’s, says his restaurant has delivered between 350 to 400 pizzas to various hospitals in the borough last week, part of a nationwide effort where pizzerias are accepting donations to serve health care workers. Chef JJ Johnson of Harlem’s rice bowl restaurant FieldTrip donated 85 rice bowls at the Harlem Hospital Center last week.

Even some of the city’s chain restaurants have announced donation efforts — including Just Salad, which is serving 10,000 meals per week to seven Mount Sinai hospitals in the city, and Mighty Quinn’s, which has provided sandwiches to more than 700 hospital workers since last Friday. Panda Express, which plans to temporarily shut down all 11 of its NYC locations, is donating more than 300 meals to local hospitals before its closure.

“It’s our way of saying thank you and letting them know they are appreciated,” Coku tells Eater.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the worst of the virus is yet to come, and the needs of health care workers are likely to increase exponentially in the coming days and weeks.

While many restaurants have stepped right now, they might not have the means to weather the storm in the long run, but as long as donations keep coming in, they can continue to serve more health care workers, at least for now, Sze tells Eater.

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