By Chris Mohney
Hannah Cheng is co-founder of Mimi Cheng’s, a Taiwanese dumpling restaurant with two locations in New York.
As a fast-casual restaurant, we tried to keep up with every single move that was happening based on what the government was mandating since the beginning of March. First, the rule was to operate at 50 percent capacity, and we took away 50 percent of our chairs. Then it was only delivery and takeout, and we did all those things and we added frozen dumplings.
But the entire time I kept hearing about how all these hospitals were shutting down their cafeterias or significantly reducing their hours. Our friends on the front lines were saying, “We’re so short staffed that even if the cafeteria was open, we would barely have time to leave the floor to get food, and especially not during those times where they cut down hours.” So we thought to ourselves it would be amazing if we were able to send hot food to these hospitals. But our sales were down 65 percent, so it’s not like we had the financial resources.
There’s a guy in our team, Jason—his mom is a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Brooklyn. He was telling us how she was working 18-hour shifts but could only eat food from the vending machine. They didn’t have access to any hot food. That just really enraged us because it was crazy. We looked at ourselves and were like, okay, we have the capacity right now, because our sales were slow regardless of delivery and takeout. So we started a GoFundMe, and the response was so incredible that we felt we needed to do this full time because this is where our priorities should lie. And because our community backed us with the resources to do that, we were able to make that pivot two weeks ago.
I think we launched the GoFundMe on a Tuesday. One of our meals costs roughly $15—heavily, heavily discounted. We’re not making money off donations. We’re using third-party deliveries to send the meals over, so that includes delivery costs. Our first lunch went out on a Thursday. We got over 100 requests in the first two days. Most of these requests were for teams of 50 to 100 doctors. That’s 5,000 to 10,000 doctors altogether. We were like, okay, we need to take a step back for one day and organize all these inquiries so we can go about it thoughtfully.
And then Verizon reached out to us on Saturday because somebody on their team saw our GoFundMe. They sponsored an additional 300 meals per day for the month of April. Verizon has partnered with specific hospitals. We’re using GoFundMe because it’s much more nimble, because we don’t have to go through all this red tape. For example, one hospital that has been on everyone’s mind is Elmhurst in Queens, but they can’t take donations because they’re a public hospital. We’re able to circumvent that red tape and send meals directly to Elmhurst. Using the GoFundMe funds, we’re targeting hospitals that are not getting the same kind of sponsorships as the hospitals here in Manhattan.
Hospitals have very specific times that they allocate for their teams to eat. Keep in mind, it’s not 300, 400, 500 meals spread out over the day. It’s all at the same time, all for the same pick-up time. We’re averaging about 400 meals a day. But we’re talking with people to get that number up.
The problem that we’re running into right now is that everybody wants their meals for lunchtime. Every hospital wants it at 12 o’clock, and they want 800 meals. We’re going to try to move some of the new meals to dinnertime, because a lot of the emails that we’re getting through GoFundMe say that all the sponsorships are coming during lunch, but that the nighttime crew and the overnight teams don’t have any access to food.
What we’re hearing from the community—it’s heart-wrenching. The emails that we get, the tone is just so bleak. They talk about how morale is down, how they’re woefully unprepared, but that people are still showing up day after day, keeping the oath that they took to take care of people. When they receive the meals, people talk about how their entire team cried. We send handwritten notes with each meal from our team, and we’ve asked our followers on Instagram to mail us inspiring and encouraging handwritten notes so that we can include those in the lunches. It’s a little way for everyone to feel like there are other people who are in this with us, who are supporting us and who are rooting for us, because they imagine it feels very lonely on the front lines. The response has been overwhelming, and the hospitals have loved it so much that they’ve asked us to ramp it up because they want to be able to feed their entire house, and not just part of a team.
Here’s the scary thing. Other hospitals are starting to reach out to schedule food donations, not only for the month of April, but also for the month of May. For us, when we first started this, we were like, okay, it’s going to be for a few weeks, maybe for the month of April. When I got that email over the weekend, I was like, we might need to strategize longer-term for May. The situation is fluid, but hopefully we’ll be able to adapt, and hopefully we’ll have enough backing that we can continue doing this. The last thing we want is for this to be a two-week effort. We’d rather be able to send meals for the month and not just for a few weeks.
This should be a call to arms for big corporations and restaurants that are still open and have the capacity to put out a few hundred meals per day. The demand that we see is just so great that the more people that can get involved to do this, the better.