Helping Restaurants Stay in Business While Feeding Those in Need

Community Kitchens in Oakland, California, buys meals from neighborhood restaurants to donate to local nonprofits.
Apr 8, 2021 9:40 AM ET

Mayra Velazquez had just opened a second branch of her Mexican street food-inspired restaurant Xingones in Oakland, California, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Within weeks, the business she had spent the last four years growing from a farmer’s market pop-up into multiple eateries had vanished — along with 80% of her revenue.

“Every day was a struggle,” Velazquez said. “We had to lay off our staff and close our second location. We kept a skeleton crew, and our focus was on keeping the business alive, making sure we could keep paying the bills and the staff, because you know they’re struggling too. Often times, going home thinking ‘Is tomorrow going to be the last day? Are we going to close tomorrow or at the end of the month?’”

Velazquez was far from the only one asking those questions. According to a survey conducted by the California Restaurant Association last year, 30% of restaurant owners said they planned to close their restaurant permanently or downsize by closing some locations. Sixty-three percent said they had not received any rent relief.

The numbers were just as bleak for restaurant workers. Nearly 1.4 million Californians worked in restaurants prior to the pandemic, and between 900,000 to 1 million of them were laid off or furloughed between March and the end of August 2020.

Establishing Community KItchens

Longtime Oakland business owners Maria Alderete and Rick Mitchell knew something had to be done to help their fellow restaurateurs stay in business. Alderete and Mitchell opened Luka’s Taproom in 2004, and grew the restaurant into a community anchor over the next two decades, participating in arts and culture events, fundraisers, and more.

But with stay-at-home orders and other mandates going into effect, they too were feeling the sting of the pandemic. As they scrambled to set up a takeout model for Luka’s and work with online ordering and delivery services that were taking up to a 30% cut, they came up with a solution to save their beloved neighborhood restaurants while helping to feed the community.

They established Community Kitchens with a simple yet far-reaching concept: fundraise money to purchase meals from local restaurants impacted by the pandemic, and donate those meals to nonprofit partners to distribute to those in need. They used their deep relationships in Oakland to scale up almost immediately.

“The foundations we had already built in our community allowed us to pivot quickly to help others,” said Alderete, who serves as executive director of Community Kitchens. “We felt very passionately that we needed to target diverse businesses that needed help the most. For these restaurants, selling some meals to Community Kitchens every week makes a big difference between shutting down forever and being around post-COVID.”

To date, Community Kitchens has helped 46 local restaurants like Xingones provide more than 30,000 fresh meals to the Oakland community. Most of their partner restaurants are minority-owned business, and represent neighborhoods from Fruitvale to Clinton Park to Chinatown and Old Oakland. Community groups helping to distribute the meals include nonprofits like the East Oakland Collective, People’s Programs, and the Berkeley Free Clinic.

"These are community-based organizations that are providing hot meals, medical supplies, and personal protective equipment to those in need — homeless families, seniors who might have trouble getting out, or are shut in on their own,” said Mitchell, board chair of Community Kitchens. “They really are the frontline for community support during the pandemic.”

Community Kitchens is currently purchasing about 1,000 meals per week from its partner restaurants, and Alderete and Mitchell hope to expand that significantly over time. The Wells Fargo Foundation provided Community Kitchens with a grant through the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Foundation to help establish operations early on.

“Our overriding goal is to produce the biggest impact with measurable outcomes that align with our focus areas like small business growth,” said Chuck Baker, Community Relations senior consultant at Wells Fargo. “This grant not only helped small businesses pivot and be resilient during COVID, it also helped with food insecurity in the community and helped local nonprofits meet their growing needs. Rick and Maria had a really innovative approach to keeping small businesses open and to problem-solving in their community. We’re proud supporters and happy to be a part of their overall vision.”

Providing kinship and hope

For Velazquez, receiving a weekly order from Community Kitchens helps her keep revenue and staffing steady and offsets days where she may sell only $120 worth of Xingones’ signature tacos and chicken sandwiches.

“Once we started these partnerships, that’s when things really started to turn around for us,” she said. “We were able to bring staff back, and most of them are coming in full-time. It’s helping us pay our bills, stay afloat, and keep our staff employed. Our customers ask how we’re doing, and even though sometimes you’re frightful because you don’t know if you’re going to make it, I’m hopeful because of these partnerships that we can stay in Oakland as long as possible. A lot of times, the places we take these meals to, we’ve seen the lines they have of people in need, and one thing I’ve learned from COVID and working with Community Kitchens is how tight our community is in Oakland.”