The grand opening

Two weeks ago, Chef Vinnie Cimino was completing his first week of service at one of Cleveland’s most anticipated, new waterfront restaurants: Summer House.

“As far as restaurant openings go, we crushed it,” says Cimino, whose culinary resume includes heading up kitchens for restaurant bastions Michael Schwartz and Jonathon Sawyer. “We were busy. We were six days in and getting a lot of positive feedback. I’ve never seen an opening go so well.”

But on the evening of Sunday, March 21, on the order of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, suddenly Cimino’s restaurant, along with every other restaurant in the state, was told to cease all operations outside of curbside, carryout and delivery options.

So, faced with a cooler full of provisions, no carryout/delivery system in place and no timetable of when the situation would change, Cimino chose to go with what he knows best.

“Hospitality is what defines our industry, so that’s what we did. Be hospitable, show hospitality and cook.”

Launching a new idea

Cimino launched an organization called Cleveland Family Meal, where he and his kitchen crew from Summer House provide both cooked and raw foods for other restaurant industry persons who suddenly found themselves unemployed. The project opened with the food in the kitchen’s pantry, but donations from food purveyors and industry friends quickly rolled in, and what started as an idea, has grown into something much, much larger.

“Our owner has been on board since day one,” Cimino said. “Our first day we took 100 bags of food upstairs to [apartments above the restaurant]. I’ve been bringing bags of food back to people in Akron. And each day we open our doors and safely allow restaurant people to come pick up food. Last week, we fed about 400 families.”

Cimino’s story is one of countless happening across the country, where industry folks are going out of their way to take care of their own, particularly as restaurant shutdown orders keep rolling in state by state. Just across town, Ushabu Chef Matt Spinner is opening the doors to his 24-seat restaurant during specific hours for industry people to come gather donated food for their families in a makeshift farmers market while other restaurants forced to close their doors sent employees home with care packages of food. And that’s just in Cleveland.

The spread of kindness

Across the country, chefs are making plans for how they best can care for their brethren, from GoFundMe pages and social media fund raisers to home deliveries for families.

Out in Omaha, industry giant Glenn Wheeler extended his outreach beyond just restaurant industry folks to include those in need or those who struggle to leave their homes.

Wheeler, who runs the kitchen at downtown steakhouse Spencer’s For Steaks & Chops, wasn’t about to let the food in his cooler go to waste and, with the help of some friends and other chefs in the city, put together a robust plan to address a growing need.

“Last Monday, the order came down that Omaha restaurants had to be closed to no more than 10 people, and our operation didn’t fit the to-go order model,” says Wheeler, a Michigan City, Ind., native and member of the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame. “I knew I had food I needed to use, and once we took care of staff, I decided to put it out on social media that I would provide meals for out-of-school children who needed help and any elderly whose health might be compromised. So, that’s what I set out to do last week.”

But as the week wore on and Wheeler’s project got more notice, his friends in the Omaha culinary community jumped on board, first by donating product from their kitchens, and then by partnering up with Wheeler to give their time and talents.

Hospitality’s hub

With Spencer’s well positioned along one of the primary downtown thoroughfares in the city, it served as the perfect command center for the project.

“We acquired a lot of proteins and other products from other chefs who didn’t want their food to go to waste,” Wheeler said. “So we started cooking and serving the homeless and out-of-work restaurant folks —and, quite frankly—anybody who was in need of a meal in these uncharted times. I had Dan Watts from Sysco smoking slabs of ribs, Blaine Hunter from Porky Butts BBQ smoked pork shoulders and Jacobson Fish donated 30 pounds of yellow fin tuna that I transformed into tuna sandwiches. A lot of really great people were involved.”

Across the country, everyone is playing the waiting game, with no clear idea of when things can expect to return to normal. But, whether it’s Cleveland or Omaha or anywhere hospitality professionals reside, rest assured there will be folks working to provide for those less fortunate.

“This has been what I do to occupy my time, and to focus on the good rather than dwelling on the bad,” Cimino said. “That’s what gets me through the days. We’re hospitality people, so that’s what we’re going to do as long as we can. We’ll keep feeding people until we can’t anymore.”

Cimino—and restaurant organizations like his across the country—will welcome donations of any kind still, either in foodstuffs or monetary donations that will allow them to purchase foodstuffs. You can follow his group on Instagram at @CLEFamilyMeal.