Fiorella, Bi-Rite team up to provide free meals to essential workers

Health care, grocery store and restaurant employees eligible for program

On April 7, Fiorella restaurants and Bi-Rite Family of Businesses launched Pay It Forward Tuesdays — a campaign to provide free meals to individuals working on the front lines during the coronavirus crisis.

The brainchild of Fiorella co-owners Boris Nemchenok and Brandon Gillis, Pay It Forward Tuesdays aims to give away 100 free meals at each of its two San Francisco restaurants (on Clement and Polk streets) every Tuesday during the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order.

The decision to support health care workers, grocery store employees and members of the restaurant industry (including farmers, purveyors and drivers continuing to deliver food to restaurants) was a natural response, said Gillis.

“The model that we are operating on as a business,” Gillis said, “is just trying to make good happen.”

That philosophy also applies to Fiorella’s own employees. Like so many others in the restaurant industry, Fiorella was forced to lay off a significant portion of its staff within the first weeks of the March 17 shelter-in-place order. But the eatery adapted quickly, changing its business model to takeout only.

In a further attempt to help staff, along with front-line workers in general, Fiorella’s co-owners devised their unsubsidized, weekly campaign. Since launching the free meal service, Gillis and Nemchenok have been able to rehire some staff members who were initially let go.

But offering 200 free meals (a choice among three pizzas or two types of pastas with a side salad), in addition to other paid to-go orders, is no easy feat, and the Fiorella team knew it couldn’t do it all on its own. So Gillis reached out to Sam Mogannam, founding partner of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses, which includes two neighborhood markets and other food-related businesses.

“My first reaction was, ‘Hell, yes!’” said Mogannam of the invitation to collaborate. “It’s our mission to feed others, and when something hits so close to home, our natural instinct is to jump in and get nourishing food to the people who need it.”

In just four days Gillis, Mogannam and Nemchenok, with the help of Frontline Foods — a donor-supported grassroots organization that facilitates meal deliveries from local restaurants to hospitals — had Pay It Forward Tuesdays up and running, with Fiorella providing made-to-order pizza and pasta and Bi-Rite tossing together fresh seasonal salads.

When asked if he hopes to expand the program to help more essential workers on the front lines, Gillis said he’d rather treat 200 people to a well-prepared meal than 500 individuals to mediocre food. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth.

In fact, Gillis and Mogannam are looking to bring more partners to the table.

“I hope we can find and create opportunities to collaborate with others to feed our community,” said Mogannam. “Working together strengthens our impact and strengthens our resilience. Humanity is a beautiful thing. We just have to remember to be kind, to be patient and to support one another.”

General orders for pick-up at both Fiorella locations can be placed by phone and in person from 4:30 to 9 p.m. (Online ordering will be added soon.) Those wishing to participate in the free Pay It Forward Tuesdays program will be asked to provide a badge or pay stub from March or April to show they are currently employed or recently laid off in the health care, restaurant or grocery industries.

By Lauren Bonney, Bay City News Service

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