Dishing out help
Dishing out help
When Daniel Chessare opened Saratoga’s Broadway Deli in downtown Saratoga Springs, New York, back in July 2018, the term “coronavirus” was virtually unheard of. Less than two years later, after the virus had spread worldwide within a few months, Chessare wasn’t surprised when Saratoga County reported positive COVID-19 cases.
Since January 2020, thanks to input from his brother, a Harvard epidemiologist, Chessare expected the virus to eventually make its way to Saratoga Springs. He prepared by making sure his delivery and online ordering services worked smoothly, foreseeing the upcoming state mandate that restaurants suspend dine-in services. What surprised Chessare was the very abrupt shutdown of establishments all over Saratoga Springs and the rest of the nation as group gathering bans took effect. “I thought it would be more of a gradual decline, not an abrupt hard line in the sand,” Chessare says. “But we were still pretty ready for it.”
Among the closures were public schools. As a single father with many years of experience in the restaurant industry, Chessare feared for the families of laid-off restaurant workers and kids who depended on free school lunches for regular nutrition. Indeed, he had to cut four of his own employees, about half his staff. He decided to take action and, on March 13, he announced that his deli would feed children in need for free, for as long as financially possible. Kids can choose from four sandwich options: ham and cheese, turkey and cheese, PB&J, or a nitrate-free hot dog, each served with a fruit cup and a drink. “Everyone hurts during times of struggle, doesn’t mean we should abandon each other,” Chessare wrote in an Instagram post, where he introduced the program.
Public schools in the state are still legally required to provide free school lunches to qualifying students, but distribution and access can be challenging. After shutting down, the Saratoga Springs City School District initially offered free meals to any student age 18 or younger, which could be picked up at designated locations during specified hours. The District switched to a meal delivery service approach on March 24, which students can opt into using an online form. According to the New York State Education Department, 1,082 students, or 17% of the district’s student population, qualified for free lunch during the 2017-18 school year.
Chessare began his free lunch program while the school district was still using its pickup system and wanted to provide an alternative for students who couldn’t take advantage of that option. “We understand the schools are still handing out meals from 11 to 1, but if for some reason they can’t make it to the school or they missed the window, they can pick up a free lunch here,” he wrote in an update to his original Instagram announcement. He asks that people call ahead and tell him how many lunches they will need, but he also accepts walk-ins.
Chessare isn’t the only one who’s concerned. Other restaurateurs have shifted their operations to address the coronavirus pandemic. Michelin-starred chef José Andrés led his celebrated food assistance organization World Central Kitchen into action, converting his Washington, D.C. and New York City restaurants into community kitchens while setting up distribution centers to deliver over 150,000 meals to families across the country, according to a cover story about him in Time magazine. Some chain restaurants have also joined the cause, like Burger King, which announced they will give away two free kids meals for every adult meal purchased, Bloomberg reported.
For independent restaurants like Chessare’s, the risk posed by the pandemic is especially acute. “One of the leading causes of failure in the restaurant industry is under-capitalization,” says John Parmelee, a lecturer of hospitality management at SUNY Plattsburgh. “And of course, now is the time when you need working capital to sustain situations like this.”
So far, thanks to an outpouring of community support, Chessare’s free lunch program has defied the odds. Despite a 50% drop in sales after just a few days, community donations have allowed Chessare to keep the program operational. Saratoga County resident Emaan Effendi said it was “very heartwarming” to learn about Chessare’s efforts. “Because of the school closures, many children who rely on school lunch have to rely on other sources of foods,” she said. “I think it’s essential that the local community donates to restaurants like Saratoga’s Broadway Deli so they can continue providing free meals for children.”
Although sales continue to stagnate with dine-in services suspended, Chessare decided to adjust his weekend hours of operation to allow himself time to rejuvenate. By adjusting the deli’s hours, Chessare said he’s aiming to keep his staff on payroll and give himself a recovery day.
Besides working long days, he is currently separated from his daughter, who is quarantining with her grandparents because Chessare regularly interacts with the public. “It’s kind of a bummer not being able to see my daughter,” Chessare says.
He admits that he’s “mentally exhausted.” But for the foreseeable future, he plans to continue offering nutritious lunches to children in need. “The public came through and donated a lot, as far as fruit cups, juice boxes and cases of water,” Chessare says. “Right now, it’s just a matter of having enough money in the bank to keep staff on.”
Update: Chessare announced on Instagram that he’s closing Saratoga’s Broadway Deli and the free-lunch program for a week, beginning April 12. The deli owner said that he’s making a loss, and he’s exhausted. The program will resume when the deli reopens, said Chessare.
This article is part of the Fermata: Arts and Culture in the Time of Coronavirus series reported by students in the Critical Writing course at the Newhouse School. Fermata features stories on the impact of the pandemic on a wide range of artists and cultural figures, from musicians and comedians to restaurateurs and boutique owners.