Austin is a city packed with an eclectic cuisine scene. With everything from vegetarian farm-to-table to world-class smoked ribs, Austin has it all. It’s rare to have such diversity of high-quality food, and it’s something that drives and thrives off tourism. However, when the pandemic hit, tourism plummeted and mandates forced restaurants to shut their doors, there was a collective worry about what was next for Austin’s food scene.
As always, Austin takes care of its own. Although it started with relief funds, quiet donations and prayers, Austin’s community quickly stepped up to create nonprofits and organizations devoted to taking care of restaurants, bars and other hospitality staff within tourism-driven industries.
One major concern was keeping people fed. In most restaurants, staff members get a meal provided by the restaurant each shift they work. Since a shift meal can be a key part of many service industry workers’ food budgets, the shutdown forced them to question where a replacement for that free, provided meal might come from.
“A lot of restaurants tried to continue to offer their employees these free meals, even when the restaurant was closed,” Mandi Nelson, founder of Austin Shift Meal, says. “That’s where we come in — to try to take that burden off of the restaurants so they can focus on staying afloat.”
Austin Shift Meal is a local organization that partnered with Austin Food & Wine Alliance to provide meals and pantry items to service industry workers who lost their jobs or can’t work as many shifts as they used to pre-pandemic.
Six months ago, Nelson lost her own job in the food and wine industry due to complications from the pandemic. After seeing firsthand the effect the pandemic was having on the hospitality and service industry, Nelson wanted to do something to help. She decided to follow her friend’s model for Houston Shift Meal and create a local version of the program.
Austin Shift Meal now provides four to five meals each week to about 75 people. Each bag has a card attached that lists the sponsors, the meals’ ingredients and any reheating instructions. Recently, they’ve also started providing dry goods alongside the meals, allowing each receiver to take about five pantry items along with their meal bags.
“Mandi really is just so great at making connections and bringing people together,” Clare De León, volunteer and meal recipient, says. “She’s been able to get everything together and makes it a point to remember everyone’s name and ask about their lives and families.”
Clare De León first got involved with Austin Shift Meal in July. She lost her job in the tourism industry and had been researching places where she would be able to alleviate the financial stress the pandemic created in her life.
“The first week, I only participated in receiving a meal. But after that, I wanted to be a part of it,” De León says. “I missed having a schedule, being a part of a team and having something to look forward to.”
After receiving her first meal bag from Austin Shift Meal, she decided to start volunteering her time to the organization every week. De León says that volunteering with the organization has helped her to add those things back into her schedule while still helping those around her.
“People in the service and tourism industry really care about each other,” De León says. “You can see that in the number of local restaurants and chefs that help provide the meals and funds each week.”
Some restaurants and sponsors of Austin Shift Meal include Torchy’s Tacos, Wheatsville Co-Op, Franklin’s BBQ, Slab BBQ, Quality Seafood and many more. Even though restaurants and chefs are struggling themselves, Austin Shift Meal has been able to find partners willing to donate and help in any way they can.
“Sometimes there will be donations of beer or wine, too, and we’ll be able to offer a bottle of wine to the first 20 people that arrive,” De León says. “It’s little things like that that make it so special each week.”
It’s not just those in the service or tourism industry themselves who are quick to help out. Donations come from all over, and many of the volunteers are just Austinites who want to help.
Sharon Reed was laid off from her substitute teaching position in March, and after seeing an article about Austin Shift Meal, she signed up immediately to be on the team. Volunteering has since helped ease the loss of not being able to work with kids and co-workers, she says.
“The team is a blast. Everyone is so upbeat and fun to hang out with,” Reed explains. “There have been a few times that recipients have come with their little kids, and I help them get everything to their vehicles while I chat with the kiddos.”
Reed and De León both say that volunteering with Austin Shift Meal has made all the difference in their own experience with the pandemic. Being able to make others’ days brighter is a highlight to their weeks.
“Receiving meals from Austin Shift Meal is my favorite part of my week,” De León says. “In that moment, the excitement distracts and lifts you out of that daily gloom that the pandemic has created.”
When asked why she thought the Austin community had been so quick and eager to help out with Austin Shift Meal’s mission, Nelson points to the hole the pandemic has created in many people’s lives — both inside and outside the service industry.
“Those in the service industry are natural caregivers; when you go to a restaurant, you’re taken care of,” Nelson says. “I think that’s something people miss, and now people want to pay it back and help take care of them instead.”
Nelson says that she hopes to keep Austin Shift Meal going for as long as there is a need, even after starting her new job. Finding sponsors and raising funds can be difficult, but she says it’s more than worth it. The good that Austin Shift Meal does goes beyond just providing food, De León explains.
“I think when our clients get one of the goodie bags, they are not only getting delicious food,” Reed says. “It represents that someone is thinking of them, cares about them and has their back.”