Front Line Appreciation Group (FLAG) is connecting local restaurants with nearby hospitals in what is now a nationwide movement. Started in March by Liz Bernich of Chatham, New Jersey and Gina McGuire from the nearby town of Madison, FLAG now has branches in 28 states and has raised over one million dollars.
For small restaurants and catering companies, filling hospital meal orders has become a main source of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as the crisis and lockdown drags on, these restaurants are suffering and donations to relief groups are dwindling.
“At the beginning, donations were rampant,” says Cari Gelber, founder of the NYC FLAG chapter. “By now, my network is pretty tapped out.”
When Gelber was furloughed in April, she channeled her energy into relief efforts. As an event planner for 15 years, she already had connections to local restaurants.
Within just a few weeks, she’s raised $15,000 and sent over 3,000 meals to city frontline workers, sourced from about 10 different restaurants.
When Gelber contacted Justin Fauci, owner of catering company Sage and Zest, he had just recently laid off most of his staff, sending them home with thousands of dollars worth of food from Sage and Zest’s kitchen.
“I had a thriving business,” Fauci says. “But I basically had to close the doors.”
With orders from FLAG and several other relief groups, Fauci was able to hire back 10 people.
“It’s been an absolute honor to deliver delicious food to heroes working in hospitals,” he says. “We’ll keep making meals as long as we can. But I only have a few thousand dollars left.”
Fauci has been approved for a small business loan from the government, which lasts only 8 weeks. With it, he’ll be able to pay his staff. He’s just hoping business will be back by the time those 8 weeks are up.
Ashley Jaffe, a friend of Gelber’s and owner of Blank Slate, was thrilled to get meal orders from FLAG. As a company with takeout and cafe options, they were more prepared to adapt to the crisis. Even so, Jaffe had to furlough most of her staff and she and her husband have been managing deliveries personally.
Gelber called up Jaffe after learning of a hospital on Roosevelt Island that lacked a cafeteria, hadn’t received any meal deliveries — and was out of coffee. Blank Slate catered breakfast for 100 workers, many of whom had been recruited from across the country. With the help of generous donors, NYC FLAG funded 11 days’ worth of meals (and brought in a coffee-maker).
“Fortunately, our landlords have been really accommodating in terms of deferring payments,” says Jaffe, who has secured a government loan. “But the problem is, this crisis is going to last a lot longer than 8 weeks. Will the government continue to support us? Was this all they were going to do?”
For some small businesses, government loans may end up doing more harm than good. They are designed to be forgivable but come with restrictions. Seventy-five percent of the funds must go directly to payroll. But rent and overhead costs often make up the majority of small business budgets. If the loans are not forgiven, they must be paid off within two years.
Relief groups and government loans are short term solutions to a problem with no end in sight. Unemployment continues to rise as New Yorkers and people across the globe deal with the financial and emotional weight of the COVID crisis. The question remains, in the weeks and months ahead, will the public have the funds and energy to continue to support enterprises like FLAG if the government fails to step up in a big way?