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Age of Coronavirus: Feeding the Folks Who Feed Us

Restaurant Industry Adapting at Light Speed to New Reality

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Above image credit: Chef Pam Liberda of Waldo Thai restaurant. (Contributed | Alyssa Broadus)

Chef Pam Liberda thrives on the conviviality of restaurant life.

But when Kansas City area restaurants were shut down by the coronavirus outbreak last week, Liberda was forced to pause service at Waldo Thai to transition to a delivery and curbside pickup model.

Her new, abbreviated menu is available 4-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The most popular to-go item: A family meal of Thai-style fried whole chicken, pineapple fried rice, stir-fried vegetables and crab Rangoon for $28.

“I’m going to keep going. I’m not the give-up kind of person,” Liberda says. “If I stay home, I will be crazy and I will drive my kids crazy.”

So far, Waldo Thai has fared better than many restaurants. Liberda has not had to lay off any of her staff, but she worries about fellow hospitality workers without a job. 

Liberda is offering free curbside pickup meals from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. today for up to 150 displaced hospitality industry workers. To receive a free lunch, workers should bring a liquor card, food handlers card or pay stub.

“I want to give lunch to people who can’t feed themselves,” she says.

A family meal at Waldo Thai. (Contributed |Alyssa Broadus)

Chris Webb has never eaten at Waldo Thai, but he feels like he knows Liberda and her staff.

Webb is the CEO of ChowNow, a commission-free online ordering system and food ordering app. Founded in 2011, the company is based in Los Angeles but also has an office with 80 employees in Kansas City’s Crossroads. 

Liberda and bar manager Darrell Loo were featured in the inaugural Open Belly Podcast

Host Danielle Lehman created CurbsideKC.com a little over a week ago to help small, independent restaurants get the word out about new takeout and delivery options. 

This week Lehman asked ChowNow to cover the costs of the free lunch giveaway. “We have other chefs/restaurants who are interested in doing this, if we can find more sponsors from the community to partner with,” Lehman says.

With so many restaurants moving to delivery and curbside takeout, ChowNow has experienced a dramatic surge in business. The company previously signed on hundreds of restaurants a month, but now the company is signing up 100 a day. 

“We have done a 180-degree turn from what we were doing a month ago,” Webb says. “Normally, we’d high-five the numbers being posted, but no one feels like celebrating. We obviously want to help every restaurant we can.” 

The company halted travel in February and moved to a work-from-home model before it was mandated. It also has taken a series of measures to increase volume, including reconfiguring work teams, speeding up installations by working seven days a week and accelerating training through twice-daily webinars instead of the usual one-on-one sessions. 

Webb is heartened by the creative takeout/delivery solutions he is seeing, including meal and cocktail “kits” with high-end ingredients for an elevated at-home experience.

“I think curbside pickup will continue to be a big thing from here on out and we’ll see restaurants designate parking spots for it,” Webb says.

Like most people around the country, Webb stocked up on groceries and alcohol before his city’s stay-at-home order went into effect. But he’s in the habit of dining out frequently and says a rotation of takeout options are likely to fill the void in the coming weeks or months.

“Across the country, 300 million people need to be fed and grocery stores won’t be able to do all of it,” Webb says. “Every restaurant will need delivery because some people are scared to go out.”

Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Harvesters the Community Food Bank. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.

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