The COVID-19 pandemic has left over 22 million Americans jobless. Restaurants, which normally employ over 15 million people, are being forced to close their doors or operate at limited capacity. For those still employed in the service industry, leaving their homes every day to go to work puts them, and their families, at risk of infection. This is our Heroes of COVID-19 series, highlighting essential worker heroes during the pandemic. Learn from Marika Evanger, a restaurant essential worker, about her pandemic experience and the project she co-started to help feed the hospitality trade.

Q&A With a Restaurant Essential Worker

Marika Evanger is the general manager of Zeppelin Station, a food-hall-esque community hub in the RiNo Arts District. Pre-COVID-19, people could meet at Zeppelin Station for a quick bite, a cocktail, or an event before hitting the town. When COVID-19 hit, the venue was forced to close five of its seven restaurants (most of which are family-owned and operated).

With an empty space, a need to connect, and a desire to help out, Marika and a few friends collaborated to create Friends & Family Meal, an initiative to help people in the hospitality trade who lost their jobs. 

Twice a week, out-of-work food and beverage workers can drive up to Zeppelin Station and receive a hot, delicious, and unique meal made by world-renowned chefs, including Chopped champion Dave Hadley. Read on to learn more about the program and what it’s like to be a restaurant essential worker. 

How has COVID-19 impacted Zeppelin Station?

For the most part, all of our food vendors have had to either score back their menu, let go of their staff, or close periodically until we can get out of this, which is obviously a tremendous hit for us and for them. They’re all independent, small business owners. Two of my tenants actually just opened their doors to the public for the first time ever at the beginning of February. So, some of these guys have been working their whole lives to be able to come up with these concepts and dreams only to have it taken out from underneath them pretty immediately. 

How did the idea for Friends & Family Meal spark?

The conversation was actually started with me and my friend Ryan Negley, who is the head of the Whiskey Club in Denver. He is a very adamant member of Friends and Family, which was initially just a Facebook group with about 2,000 members that Kevin Galaba ran. Ryan floated up the idea in a Facebook post very casually right when this all started happening. He wrote, “Family Meal, is anyone down?” For those of you who don’t know, family meal is usually a meal that everybody on staff at a restaurant would enjoy together either before or after their shift. It’s a moment to breathe with each other before or after the rush. It’s usually meant to be really lighthearted and fun for you and your staff. 

When Ryan mentioned that, I immediately reached out. Kevin, Ryan, and I started the conversation literally in a 48-hour time span. We created a concept and were able to get funding together for an 8-week period of meals within less than a week. 

How does the free meals program work? 

As it stands, the funding has made it so that we’re able to create 150 meals every Tuesday and Thursday. If you’re in the industry, you text a hotline number to secure your meal. It’s first-come, first-serve. They just give us basic information: first and last name, the restaurant that they were working for, and an email so we can keep them in contact with us as we continue to develop the program. 

How has the program been received so far?

It’s been pretty incredible. We have families who call every week, they’re the first in line, needing three or four meals at a time. For those people, it’s one day that they don’t have to think about whether or not they’re going to eat something or one day they know that they’re going to be secured a meal. 

We have people like the dishwasher at Denny’s that comes, and we have the head chef of Elways and Safta. It’s a really, really wide spectrum of people who are coming through.

This whole program just brings this sense of … it’s bigger than just feeding people. I think that for the people that show up in their car for the meal as well, it’s a sense of being able to say, “Wow, this is my community. I’m really proud of this.” There’s an emotional wave that happens through this whole period of time where we’re handing out food that comes from the cook, to the volunteer, to our guests, and so on.

Not only are our chefs volunteering their time to make sure that they are getting the food taken care of in advance to feed these 150 people, but we also have people that are coming in to do the food distribution. We have people who are coming in to clean. So it’s really just been humbling to see the amount of people who want to be part of making people feel some sense of normalcy in this.

Why is it important to create a sense of normalcy? 

Giving these chefs, giving the restaurants, that feeling of hospitality that nobody’s getting right now is really important. It’s a customer-forward, people-driven industry that we don’t get to do from home. These people who work in the restaurant industry genuinely depend on human interaction in order for them to feel the seriousness and gratitude of their occupation. They’re putting the same amount of thought into this that they would serve you any day of the week, because it’s meaningful to them.

For you, what does your day-to-day look like?

As long as the food hall’s open, every day I’m contributing to this or another aspect of Zeppelin Station. In regards to Friends and Family, I am there on those Tuesdays and Thursdays. Usually I get there pretty early just to assist my chefs in any way that they would need. 

I’m also the text hotline, which is pretty interesting because I don’t think people realize it’s an actual human behind it. 

I think we probably get 500 texts a week, if not more. My entire Monday and Wednesday are just spent responding to text messages. A lot of industry workers want to talk about how much they appreciate it, or their family situations. Just trying to be there and be a shoulder a little bit has been an unexpected role in this. 

And then the cars just come. It’s a completely contactless operation. You literally drive up, show your ID, we should have you on the list, we check you off, we give you your meal, and you’re on your way. Nobody has to come in. It’s pretty easy. 

Does this work put you in danger? How do you manage that risk? 

It’s interesting because I am one of those people that is constantly mad when I see people outside without masks, when I see people in the grocery store without gloves. I live one block away from Curtis Park and I do my little walk when I can and it never fails that I see people playing football in the park. It drives me crazy. I just don’t feel like people are taking things seriously. But as an essential worker, I do understand that this is going to be something we all kind of adapt to. 

For Zeppelin Station, I feel confident because it’s controlled. I know exactly how many people are working at one time. We have a cleaning crew and are able to maintain standards per COVID-19 mandates. 

In other public places, I get nervous. I do. I’m also an adult asthmatic person, which is like the number one most susceptible person. But, I feel very safe in my workspace. I guess I have to trust that when I go to other workspaces, people are taking the same sense of ownership that I do to the cleanliness and those regulations. 

I’m doing my part by wearing a mask everywhere I go and wearing gloves at the grocery store. It’s just a tricky thing right now. I try to minimize my time in public outside of being at work as much as I can. 

What else do you want people to know?

You know, this initiative is built because we care about our community. That is something that truly drives me with everything that I do in my immediate world. I have always worked one-on-one as much as I can with my direct community of people. 

While my community of people right now is food and beverage, there’s a lot of other food programs in Denver for people that aren’t in this industry. Some food programs in Denver offer food to the eldery or to families in need, or discounted grocery rates and things like that, so I encourage people to look that up. 

We’re not the only people out here doing this, we’re just one of the bigger movements right now because of how incredibly affected the food and beverage industry has become since COVID-19. I just hope that everybody knows that there are other outlets and resources out there too, if you’re not in the food and beverage industry. 

Support This Initiative

If you’d like to help this initiative, consider donating to their GoFundMe or becoming a corporate sponsor. To support Zeppelin Station, order a contactless delivery from their open restaurants: La Rola (urban Columbian cuisine), the Budlong (Nashville hot chicken), or Hamburger Stan (classic burger joint).

Stay Tuned

Check in next week for a Q&A with a teacher in our weekly Heroes of COVID-19 series featuring the essential worker heroes in our COVID-19 present. To keep your mind off the pandemic, check out these three TEDx talks