Erik Bruner-Yang does not want to wait on the weighty, lumbering gears of government to start solving the record-breaking unemployment surge the novel coronavirus outbreak has triggered in the United States. The D.C. chef and restaurateur, one of the city’s most prominent tastemakers, has spent the past five days putting together an ambitious crowdfunding system that will put restaurant workers back on the job and feed communities in need at the same time.
The Power of 10 initiative operates on simple math. Donations start at $10 — the advertised cost of food and labor to cover one meal — and go up in multiples of 10. Every $10,000 in donations collected on its website will fund a restaurant to hire 10 chefs for a week and buy ingredients to make 1,000 meals for a partnered nonprofit or community. Bruner-Yang has gamed out the $10,000 to provide an hourly wage of $14.50 for workers and a food cost of $4.20 per meal, which the chef says typically translates to an entree in the $16 to $18 range. Each participating restaurant can make about 142 free meals.
Bruner-Yang’s Foreign National restaurant group is trying out the model at three restaurants. Starting today, Power of 10 will accept money that will bring people back to work at Cane, the Trinidadian restaurant owned by Eater D.C. Chef of the Year Peter Prime. On Monday, Prime will bring laid off workers back into the kitchen to cook for nonprofit Food on the Stove, an organization that’s providing meals to first responders. Power of 10 has already secured $20,000 in private donations for Cane, enough money to support the first two weeks there.
At the same time, Bruner-Yang will fund a test program at two of his restaurants: Buzzy new Italian-Asian pasta shop ABC Pony will cook for Food on the Stove, and Cambodian-Taiwanese cafe Maketto will coordinate pickup meals for hungry residents along the H Street NE corridor.
“I know 150 families just in my immediate area we could help out without partnering with a nonprofit,” Bruner-Yang says. “People who are underbanked, who don’t have representation, who don’t speak English, who know elderly people that don’t have anyone looking out for them.”
Each participating restaurant will be in charge of its own hiring, but Power of 10 will serve as a resource for coordinating partnership with nonprofits, fundraising, logistics, IT support, and social media. Arcadia, the sustainability and agriculture-focused nonprofit run by the owners of Neighborhood Restaurant Group, is also on board.
The idea is to create a model that can be replicated by restaurants all over the city, and then the country. Bruner-Yang says he’s already had discussions with chefs in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago about adopting the Power of 10 model.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, close to 3.3 million unemployment insurance claims were filed last week, a record number nearly five times greater than the previous mark of 700,000, set in 1982. In a 12-day span starting Friday, March 13, the District’s Department of Employment Services has reported 24,686 unemployment claims. With government-mandated dining bans in effect across much of the country, restaurant workers have been among the hardest hit by layoffs.
Bruner-Yang says Power of 10 is meant to help fill the unemployment gap and provide income to restaurant workers while pols figure out how to disseminate bailout money. Late Wednesday night, the Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that would pad unemployment insurance claims by $600 per week and supply $367 billion in loans for small businesses.
“All those things are going to take time. It’s going to take time to pass these bills. It’s going to take time to set up the systems. It’s going to take time to distribute the money,” Bruner-Yang says.
By involving neighborhood restaurants, he’s also hoping to create an environment where people are comfortable receiving help.
“Sometimes charity has this classism to it, and when it’s connected to people you know and restaurants you know, that divide separates,” he says.
While Maketto’s efforts will be focused on Ward 6 residents, Bruner-Yang says the model could be applied to help out areas with more dire needs, too. Data collected by the D.C. Policy Center in 2017 showed that half of the city’s food deserts were in Ward 8, and nearly a third were in Ward 7. Bruner-Yang says he’s already lobbied Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal about potentially bringing Power of 10 to the recently opened outpost in Anacostia.
The Power of 10 has come together in just about five days, Bruner-Yang says. The idea owes a debt to a couple other humanitarian efforts with roots in the D.C. culinary world, such as José Andrés’s well-known work with World Central Kitchen — and “community kitchens” operating out of his restaurants right now — and fast-casual chain &pizza’s recent effort to deliver more than 13,000 pies to hospital workers. Last summer, Bruner-Yang took a job as executive chef at &pizza.
Bruner-Yang also thinks restaurateurs are in a unique position to set up new systems, because they’re already used to organizing on the fly and being told they’re crazy for pursuing such a high-risk business.
“No matter what it takes, they make it happen,” the chef says. “That’s the entrepreneur. That’s the American dream.”