As hard as it is to believe at times, one day the pandemic will end. What these quiet city centers with closed storefronts will look like depends on the decisions now being made by executives innovative enough to survive a pandemic.

Newark, New Jersey may have a checkered past, but it also has no shortage of savvy executives working to bring its restaurants to the other side. Business, sports and government officials came together to support Newark Working Kitchens, a sustainable, reproducible donation model that keeps the lights on in dozens of restaurants that give Newark its unique character, starting with Halal Guys, an offshoot of the famous Food cart serving Middle Eastern dishes to buy organic food on the fresh coast. With an initial $ 1.3 million markup from the audiobook and podcast platform Audible, the program has received millions in local funding.

Revitalization, interrupted

Despite a rich history, a busy international airport, and the steady attraction of arts and sports centers, Newark is stubbornly viewed through the lens of the 1967 riots, five days of violence fueled by years of poverty, racial discrimination, and disenfranchised other factors. The city riots have eroded them and separated them from their middle-class suburbs, but Newark has since done some hard work to create a place for families and businesses to hang their hats.

A case in point is the racist makeup of the city’s police force. While the police-community relationship is still in the works, the force is now 42% Hispanic and 37% black, which is more in line with the urban population at 39% and 47%, respectively.

Before the pandemic, an urban renewal engine was buzzing. A luxury department store built in 1901, empty for decades, was converted into a living space that was anchored by Whole Foods. Towers and low-income townhouses sprang up in Georgia King Village. The Military Park, the long-dormant town square, was equipped with a renovated fountain, new greenery and programs to attract visitors.

Companies took note. Audible, led by Founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz and owned by Amazon, opened its headquarters on Broad Street in 2007. Panasonic of North America opened riverside offices in 2013. Rutgers expanded its Newark campus. Even the city of Prudential Financial, founded in Newark more than 140 years ago, added a new office tower to its headquarters.

Then the coronavirus began to spread. Rutgers students headed off for the spring break and stayed there. Public school children were sent home to study virtually, and many workers started working from home.

Repurposing for a purpose

Although Mayor Ras Baraka was quick to announce the risks associated with the virus, Newark has been particularly hard hit due to its proximity to airports in two states, its vulnerable elderly and colored populations, and a poverty rate that triples the national average. As in other cities across America, businesses closed, leaving many workers unemployed.

When the first home order was placed in March, Aly Leifer, who has run the Cuban restaurant La Cocina and Roberts Pizza in Newark with her family for more than a dozen years, walked out the door thinking they’d be closed for maybe two weeks . Instead, the staff they consider family were incapacitated until April when they took their first step towards reopening.

But being open didn’t mean being in business. Leifer knew that the traffic was at its peak by the work week and that the city would calm down after 8:00 p.m. But the days were calm now too. The restaurant has tried to expand its delivery range. If someone orders, we will pick it up there. But the mirror remained silent.

Then came Newark Working Kitchens (NWK), a free food delivery service designed to preserve businesses and jobs while helping Newark’s most vulnerable populations. The program rewards meals from popular local restaurants for delivery to schoolchildren on leave, home seniors, the homeless, veterans, low-income families and frontline medical workers.

Newark work kitchens

NWK launched in mid-April with $ 1.5 million in seed capital from Audible and the support of celebrity chefs Marcus Samuelsson, a local business owner, and José Andrés, whose World Central Kitchen is running a similar program in cities across the country.

Though a number of efforts have been made to support the restaurant industry and its workers, the Newark Working Kitchens have made a firm stance, closing the loop between smart businesses and the city’s disenfranchised, and gathering support from every corner. By the end of August, NWK had received more than $ 3 million in total in donations from the City of Newark, local energy company PSEG, business leaders such as TD Bank, behavior change platform Thrive Global, and Fidelco Realty Group. and the Newark-based National Hockey League team, the New Jersey Devils.

Jake Reynolds, president of the Devils, says Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment co-founders Josh Harris and David Blitzer and the team were inspired by what they saw and contributed $ 200,000 through the Devils Care Foundation – and a virtual fundraiser called “Donate a Plate,” to get the community of fans involved. Two thousand meals at $ 10 a shot have already been promised, and players have campaigned for the effort on their own social networks.

To date, 400,000 meals have been delivered to 10,000 Newark residents. And 200 jobs have been left without the suppliers who supply all of this food. But it is the model of the neighbors who feed the neighbors that Leifer is particularly grateful for. She calls the program a “lifesaver” that gives her team meaning.

Leifer is also clear about what the future would look like without NWK and simply says: “We would not be open.” Other participating restaurateurs agreed with their views. In a local news interview, Sean McGovern, third generation owner of McGovern’s Tavern, said the program was “honestly about keeping the lights on. If we didn’t do this, we’d be completely nailed down with regard to our bottom line. “

When the crisis ends

Nobody knows what the world will be like when the crisis ends. But at least some of Newark’s pre-pandemic vibrancy is retained to aid the city’s comeback.

Don Katz, the man who moved Audible to Newark, says the efforts will continue to require support and hard work. “Even with partial resumption of indoor eating in the coming weeks, pedestrian traffic around these restaurants will remain a fraction of pre-COVID levels as Newark’s top employers gradually, incrementally adopt plans to return to work.” Katz told the story of an NWK restaurant owner who reported having 140 live customers a day in March. When they spoke in mid-August, he had had seven.