Program lifts restaurants by buying meals for frontline employees
Kristin Evans got more than a delicious lunch when she ordered takeout courtesy of the county’s Nourish Henrico program.
Along with six coworkers from the Child Protective Services unit, she received a note of thanks from the restaurant, Organic Krush, plus a complimentary Flu Shot – a wellness-boosting, cold-pressed drink made from pineapple, lemon, ginger and garlic.
The CPS staff members, like police officers, firefighters and many other employees continue their work in the community despite the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
The county launched Nourish Henrico to support these frontline workers as well as local restaurants that are struggling to remain open. Under the program, the county picks up the tab – up to $15 – when an eligible, on-duty employee buys a meal from a list of approved restaurants.
Evans enjoyed her lunch from Organic Krush on Tuesday before making a home visit that afternoon.
“I know it’s a definite positive for my unit,” she said. “It’s the one good thing we can look forward to.”
Nourish Henrico kicked off March 28 and has grown steadily, with more than 100 restaurants and 700 to 900 employees now eligible to participate daily. Restaurants must be locally owned, located in Henrico and able to receive payments by credit card among other criteria. Restaurants can express their interest by completing an online form.
Nourish Henrico, supported with funds budgeted for marketing of sporting events now-canceled due to the outbreak, will continue as long as possible, said Cari Tretina, chief of staff to County Manager John A. Vithoulkas.
For Capriccios Italian Restaurant, the program has provided a financial and emotional lift at a critical time, said Tina Sgroi, who owns the business with her husband, Frank. It has allowed them to remain open, keep staff on payroll and donate meals to doctors, nurses and other staff at local hospitals.
“In my 42 years, I’ve never seen a county step up [like this],” she said. “Henrico County has stepped up. It’s a beautiful circle that’s going and keeps going.
“We’re good right now because a lot of our community is stepping up and paying it forward.”
That’s the idea, said Tretina, noting that restaurants generate about $30 million per year in meals tax receipts for Henrico County Public Schools. “Anything we can do in this current environment to pay that back, we want to do,” she said.
The idea for Nourish Henrico stems from Bobby Haller, an owner of Sandston Smokehouse.
Last month, when the coronavirus appeared likely to cause major disruptions to businesses and the community, Haller contacted Varina District Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson and then Vithoulkas about potentially providing hot meals for the county’s first responders. The 2½-year-old restaurant had counted police officers and firefighters among its loyal customers.
The program took shape quickly, with county staff developing an efficient way to process payments to restaurants within a few days.
“All last week, we were as busy as could be,” Haller said. “The biggest thing for us was just the possibility of some revenue to keep our doors open.”
Sandston Smokehouse has filled county employees’ takeout orders and made deliveries as far away as Henrico’s Jail East in New Kent County.
Katherine O’Donnell, executive vice president for Richmond Region Tourism, said the extra boost for restaurants is critical because they are an important part of the area’s tourism industry.
“We know our restaurant partners appreciate the extra support the innovative Nourish Henrico campaign is providing,” she said.
Nancy Thomas, president and CEO of the Retail Merchants Association, agreed.
“These businesses are paying a heavy price for measures intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, and the Nourish Henrico meals initiative is a great way to give them business while also showing appreciation for those first responders who are actively putting themselves in harm’s way during this crisis,” she said.
For Patrol Officer Jason Wiseman, the brief, face-to-face interactions with restaurant owners and staff have allowed him to establish new relationships in the community and provided a little relief in stressful, uncertain times.
Wiseman, who is based from the Police Division’s Central Station, also has appreciated not having to worry about preparing meals before heading out for his evening shift.
“As grocery store shelves struggle to maintain a stock of staple foods, these businesses are providing a moment of normalcy,” he said. “We are thankful for the opportunity to help keep the lights on.”