Jenna and Min Choe of Tso Chinese Delivery; Irena Stein of Alma Cocina Latina; Hanan Shabazz of Benne on Eagle

Stories of Southern Resiliency

Even in the darkest days of 2020, restaurateurs were finding innovative ways to help their staffs, businesses, and communities. Here, three of them share stories of survival, strength, and hope for the future.
By Priya Krishna

It's hard to process the devastation the pandemic has wrought on the restaurant industry—institutions closed forever, leaving workers without jobs and neighborhoods without gathering spots. But just as quickly as the pandemic arrived, restaurateurs across the region stood up to help, even as many of them faced uncertainty over the future of their own businesses. That aid came not only in the form of programs like the Southern Smoke Foundation and the Lee Initiative, which have provided tremendous relief, but also through innovative local efforts—community kitchens, drive-through meals, and grocery boxes. They showed the whole country that Southern hospitality is as much about resilience as it is warmth. These are the contributions of three restaurateurs who reconfigured their lives to help those around them, all while paving a hopeful path forward for the future of Southern food.

Jenna and Min Choe of Tso Chinese Delivery
Sesame Balls and Potstickers from Tso Chinese Delivery
Left: Husband-and-wife duo Jenna (left) and Min Choe | Credit: John Davidson
Right: Sesame Balls and Potstickers from Tso Chinese Delivery | Credit: Courtesy Min Choe

Min Choe, Cofounder and CEO, Tso Chinese Delivery

Austin, TX
"Before the pandemic, we had established a really strong foundation and earned 2 million dollars. The plan was to scale up to serve all of Austin and eventually open more locations. A system to give back to the community is built into our DNA. I am from Austin and have lived here for more than 35 years. COVID-19 just made us move that program a lot quicker. Operationally, we barely had to change anything. Our business is delivery and takeout. I will be the first to tell you that our sales are very strong, almost double today what they were before COVID. But that gives us a sense of responsibility to give back to the community. A lot of our industry is suffering. Through #TsoGiving, we started offering hot meals, with no questions asked. We gave people credit on their account to place an order. What ended up happening was that everyday citizens decided to donate to the cause. There was a snowball effect, and we have since served 26,000 people. Now we are exploring creating an official nonprofit. Even though we're only two stores in, our hearts and minds are there. We are looking forward to the opportunities that come our way in the [nonprofit] arena."
tsodelivery.com

Irena Stein of Alma Cocina Latina
Alma Cocina Latina
Left: Credit: Mark Demshak
Right: Credit: Courtesy Irena Stein

Irena Stein, Founder, Alma Cocina Latina

Baltimore, MD
"As soon as the governor of Maryland announced we had to close, my concern was for our kitchen staff. They are all immigrants, like myself, and (for a variety of reasons) don't have access to benefits. How was I going to keep them employed? We had previously collaborated with Mera Kitchen Collective [a group of chefs from around the world who do events in Baltimore]. It took one phone call. We were on the same page: We wanted to turn into a community kitchen where we all work together. The food preparation starts at 6 in the morning. Every day, it's a different menu. The team shares responsibilities and rotates their roles, and then local organizations, like the Greater Baybrook Alliance and CASA of Baltimore, pick up the food. We were initially supported by World Central Kitchen [José Andrés' nonprofit], but now that's complemented by private donations. We thought this would last two or three weeks. It has been around a year, and we have given out over 90,000 meals. We have devised a new business model for our restaurant that will exist beyond the pandemic, where community meals are made in the morning, and then in the afternoon, the team from Alma comes in to set the whole kitchen for the restaurant itself. We are educating our staff in every aspect of what they are doing: You're not just cooking vegetables; you didn't come here only to make $16 an hour and leave; you're coming here to support a city and contribute to its well-being."
almacocinalatina.com

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Hanan Shabazz of Benne of Engle
Credit: Johnny Autry

Hanan Shabazz, Culinary Mentor, Benne on Eagle

Asheville, NC
"When restaurants closed, the Asheville Housing Authority asked me to open back up the Southside Kitchen. I had been part of its Kitchen Ready program [a culinary training program for the community], but things had slowed down. I came and cleaned up the place, bringing two of the workers from Benne [the restaurant] and one of the students who had been in my Kitchen Ready program. Now we are serving hundreds of meals every day. At first, it was soup and cornbread. Now we produce a lot of different foods, like lasagna and potato gratin. My community matters to me. I live in the Southside neighborhood, in my grandmother's house. My desire has always been to boost The Block [where Benne on Eagle is located, adjacent to Southside] because it has been a central location for Black people from all over the world. Everyone knows me here. We now have a refrigerator where we can put some meals for kids who need them during the day, and we have a great big garden with volunteers who bring food here. In December, we gave away a few hundred boxes with Christmas dinners, and I wanted every household I came into contact with to take one of them. My body is getting a little tired, and I'm trying to slow down. I am the oldest one in the kitchen, but I am here to help as much as I can, to keep this dream of the Southside Kitchen alive, so it can continue to grow and be prosperous for the rest of our lives."
benneoneagle.com