A grassroots effort in New Orleans is feeding front line hospital workers and helping local restaurants stay in business.

By Kelly West

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When Chef Nathanial Zimet got an order for 110 meals from his restaurant in Uptown New Orleans, he was just days away from closing his doors. It was one week into the stay at home order issued by the governor of Louisiana in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and businesses everywhere were suffering. 

“I was like, man, this is rough,” Zimet says, thinking back to the first week after the state issued a stay at home order. “[My restaurant] is kind of like limping along. I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent or anything… but the worst thing I can do is throw food away. So we’re gonna see how it goes.”

Zimet had already closed the dining room of his sit-down restaurant, Boucherie, and moved operations next door to his counter service restaurant, Bourrée, but business was very slow. 

Then he got the call from Devin De Wulf, who wanted to send more than 100 meals to the medical providers working in New Orleans hospitals during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“I was like, thank you,” Zimet says of his phone call with De Wulf. “You’re gonna be the reason why we’re not going to close next week.”

That order turned out to be one of thousands that Feed the Front Line NOLA has placed over the last several weeks as part of an effort to save local restaurants and give back to the health care workers who are dealing with the realities of a global pandemic. The idea came to De Wulf when his wife, an ER doctor, told him how much she appreciated it when people brought food to the hospital. 

“I was like, of course. This is a solution because the hospital workers need good food. They are so stressed out and they’re fighting so hard and they have literally the greatest challenge of their career facing them right now.”

Kyle Fehrenbach, a sound engineer who was laid off from multiple jobs with the shutdown of bars and restaurants nationwide, delivers ready-to-eat meals for over-worked medical staff at Oschner Medical Center West Bank (Photo by Katie Sikora).
Kyle Fehrenbach, a sound engineer who was laid off from multiple jobs with the shutdown of bars and restaurants nationwide, delivers ready-to-eat meals for medical staff at Oschner Medical Center West Bank in New Orleans. [photo by Katie Sikora]

So De Wulf placed a $60 order and had it sent to one local hospital. Then he put a call out to the Mardi Gras krewe he organizes, Krewe of Red Beans, and solicited donations from members. Then word started spreading.

“After a couple of days, it was like, holy crap, we are feeding just about every ER and ICU in New Orleans, which is, between 1200 and 1300 meals [a day],” De Wulf says. “So I just kept buying more food because, while I love feeding the hospital workers, my actual primary objective is to save these restaurants. I want to spend as much money as possible as quickly as possible so that the restaurants can stay alive, basically.”

In just a few weeks, the donations were pouring in by the thousands, and De Wulf enlisted the help of some of his krewe and other community members to keep the effort growing. They began hiring local musicians to run the deliveries, helping to keep them afloat after many had lost their gigs. 

Alexis Kyman, a member of Krewe of Red Beans and an attorney by trade, took over the organizational aspects of the operation, while continuing to work her full-time job from home. 

“It’s a win-win-win helping the medical workers, helping the restaurants stay afloat, and then helping the musicians who are the heart and soul of New Orleans,” she says. 

Devin De Wulf, left, wanted to save the New Orleans restaurants, like Boucherie, right, from having to close their doors. “In New Orleans, we have all these little local mom-and-pop type operations,” he says. “And they’re probably not going to get the government bailout like the airline companies.”  [photos by L.A. Reno]

Kyman was floored by the outpouring of support, and the unique ways people chose to fundraise DJ’s hosted virtual dance parties, a photographer offered portrait sessions on people’s porches, musicians hosted live stream performances all to raise money for the movement they began tagging #FeedTheFrontLine. Kyman says it’s a testament to how the community in New Orleans pulls together in a crisis. 

“Once a New Orleanian, always a New Orleanian, and we take care of each other,” Kyman says.

Zimet sees that too. He lived in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, and returned after the storm, when people came together to help each other through a disaster that crippled the city. 

“These types of things have the potential to bring communities together so strongly,” Zimet says, “and I feel like that’s what I need to be focusing on as an individual and as a business owner.”

For now, Zimet is focused on paying his employees, but each day is a question mark as to what will happen next. “If I don’t get the government assistance that I think we’re going to get, I’m going to go out of business. There’s just no question. And, you know, my priority is to pay the people who have given themselves to this. That can only last for so long if we’re not making any money.”

Staff from Justine loads ready-to-eat meals to be delivered to over-worked medical staff at Oschner Health Center West Bank (Photo by Katie Sikora).
A staff worker from the French Quarter restaurant Justine loads ready-to-eat meals to be delivered to medical staff at Oschner Health Center West Bank. Feed the Front Line NOLA is buying $20,000 worth of food from local restaurants every day to feed to hospital staff.  [Photo by Katie Sikora]

Feed The Front Line NOLA is now bringing in tens of thousands of dollars in donations every week, and spending about $20,000 a day buying meals from local restaurants to deliver to hospital workers. De Wulf knows it’s not enough, but his hope is that it keeps going long enough to keep the restaurants from closing their doors.

“In New Orleans, we have all these little local mom-and-pop type operations,” he says. “We’re not eating at, like, Outback Steakhouse. We’re eating at Joey K’s or Boucherie or all these places that are owned by the family that operates them. And they’re probably not going to get the government bailout like the airline companies, you know.”

In addition to calls from CNN, The New York Times, and Food & Wine Magazine, De Wulf is fielding calls from people in other cities who want to replicate what Feed the Front Line NOLA has done. And the model is starting to pop up in other places across the country. 

“I’ve talked to people in Los Angeles, Houston, Charlotte, Shreveport, Baton Rouge. I just got an e-mail from Northern California. So I’ve definitely been spreading it to my best ability, because I think it could work anywhere.”

De Wulf says that in addition to helping local restaurants, the morale boost for the health care workers is an important part of the effort. 

“They’re working their asses off,” he says. “They’re watching a lot of people die. They don’t have the protective gear they need to have. And then they really know, like, I’m sacrificing myself potentially. And when I get home, I might bring it home to my family. And they’re just going to work every day just because that’s what they do. This is their moment to basically save us, so that’s what they’re doing. And that’s why I think so many people have donated money to us.”

Top photo: Medical staff at Oschner Health Center West Bank accept containers of ready-to-eat meals prepared by Live Oak Cafe and delivered by Feed the Frontline NOLA. [Photo by Katie Sikora]