Next to the Beck Center for the Arts on Detroit Ave. in Lakewood, a serpentine line forms outside Salt+ a restaurant on Sunday morning. The bustling crowd isn’t clamoring for the chic small plates typically created for brunch by James Beard Award-nominated chef Jill Vedaa. No, the crowd is eagerly waiting for the start of CLE Family Meal – a food pantry for food industry folks struggling to make ends meet following closures related to COVID-19. Vedaa and her business partner Jessica Parkison began hosting the nonprofit project in March, along with a small collective of colleagues pivoting in their businesses amidst the pandemic.
The initiative was the brainchild of Vinnie Cimino, executive chef of Summer House, who temporarily shuttered his kitchen six days post-opening in the legendary Swingo’s space at the Carlyle building on Lakewood’s Gold Coast. The veteran culinarian – who honed his craft under the tutelage of Jonathon Sawyer at Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina – was poised to serve the masses following a “flawless” half-dozen days at the helm. With a staff of more than 50 facing indefinite unemployment in light of Governor Mike DeWine’s mandate on March 15, 2020, and a kitchen full of foods that would never be sold, Cimino and his sous chef Ryan Boone sprang into action, creating a week’s worth of care packages to assist their team during uncertain times.
Employees Only NEO, established last October by Mark Bailey, the general manager of Tremont’s Hi and Dry restaurant, helps service industry workers facing unexpected hardships. Bailey’s organization was initially intended to provide “one-off” assistance with isolated incidents, such as a broken leg befalling an uninsured bartender. As coronavirus upended the entire culinary community in Northeast Ohio, the nonprofit has ramped up its scope to reflect the growing need. “This month alone, we’ve been able to pay 18 rents, cover utility payments for 54 people, distribute 1,000-plus meals, and give out more than 100 grocery store gift cards,” he said. Bailey is also channeling funds to CLE Family Meal to provide nonperishable pantry items and essentials like diapers, feminine hygiene products, and toiletries. An impartial advisory board composed of citizens outside the hospitality business work together to triage recipients, ensuring assistance is allocated to those who need it most urgently.
The team at CLE Family Meal has approached their outreach with efficiency, intention, and innovation. “Although we’ve had interest from volunteers, we’ve purposely kept our core group small to slow the curve, realizing we won’t be helping anyone if we get them sick in the process of feeding them,” Cimino explained. On May 9, 2020, they conducted a sellout “virtual pig roast” to raise funds for the charity project. Vedaa and Parkison, who typically shave a quarter off the bill for those in the biz while hosting service industry nights on Mondays, began earmarking 25 percent of that evening’s carryout sales to subsidize produce they distribute from sponsors like Sirna & Sons, Sysco, and US Foods.
While there are no immediate plans to shelve the Sunday market, the services of CLE Family Meal will continue to evolve with the community’s needs. Generosity hasn’t come without its share of growing pains. Logistical challenges to manage supply and demand and glitches with contributions have, at times, caused heartache for the helpers. “Today was the hardest day,” Parkison said, while wrapping up a recent event at her restaurant. “There were a lot of people with kids here today, and we ran out of items before accommodating everyone in line.”
Support from corporations and citizens alike is essential, and widespread involvement will amplify the impact. Tax-deductible financial contributions can be made online via PayPal at CLE Family Meal or by contacting CLEfamilymeal@gmail.com. Non-perishable foodstuffs and personal items can be dropped off at Salt+ a restaurant (17625 Detroit Avenue).
Author’s Note: Cleveland Family Meal is a fiscally-sponsored program of the 501c3 organization Food Conscious. Summer House and its investor-partners are in no way affiliated with the aforementioned charity projects.