by CARMEN SIERING
It’s been nearly six months since Americans first learned about the novel coronavirus. At the time, it seemed hard to fathom it could shut down our restaurants.
“Three or four days before Lennie’s [Restaurant and Brewpub] closed, I was scoffing at the idea that they might make all of the restaurants close across the country,” says Jeff Mease, co-founder and CEO of One World Enterprises. “It boggled the mind. It seemed impossible. And then it was happening.”
Mease says that when he realized his eat-in restaurants (Lennie’s and Hive) were going to close and he would have to lay off his employees, he recognized they might be worried about buying food until their unemployment checks kicked in.
“Food insecurity is such a primal fear, and right in the beginning there was so much fear and trepidation,” Mease says. “I wanted to embody the message that people were going to get fed.”
A lot of restaurants have the tradition of a family meal for employees. “It’s free and it’s good, but you don’t have a choice,” Mease says. “You eat what’s being made. It doesn’t mean everyone is sitting down at a big table, it just means everyone gets to eat.”
In light of the crisis, Mease decided to create a family meal for his laid-off employees after Indiana’s stay-at-home order was instituted in mid-March. Offered free of charge Monday through Friday from 2 to 4 p.m., the pick-up-and-go omnivore, vegan, and gluten-free options were voluntarily prepared by One World Catering employees.
After a few weeks, Mease opened the family meal to the rest of Bloomington’s laid-off service industry employees as well as the arts community.
Mease calls the endeavor “a loaves and fishes story.” One World donated food it had in stock and once word got out, other restaurants donated food, as did some One World suppliers.
“It wasn’t a financial strain to do it,” Mease says. “But we were going to do it whatever it took.”
At its peak, One World was distributing 250 meals a day plus delivering 130 meals to hospital workers. When it appeared the need was falling, the decision was made to halt the meals. The program ended on May 22.
Throughout the lockdown, Pizza X, another One World business, remained open. When it became clear that laid-off employees collecting unemployment were benefiting from the federal coronavirus bill to the tune of an additional $600 per week, Mease says he felt compelled to give Pizza X employees a 75% raise from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money that One World received. He says it was a way of leveling the playing field.
“And, really, they are literally at risk,” he says of Pizza X employees who interact with customers. “It’s hazard pay.” The raises remained in effect until the end of July.
When asked why he gave away food and gave his employees raises during what was a tough time for his business, Mease waxes poetic. “Life is art and we all have a calling,” he says. “Reducing fear is a calling. That was at the heart of the family meal. And the other part [the raises]? That was about fairness.”