Hannah Withers is hospitality in the flesh. She and her husband Ben have a legacy of looking out for the people in their community. Whether they’re feeding Fayettevillians with their restaurant, Leverett Lounge, serving up drinks at the beloved Maxine’s Tap Room, or crowdsourcing Facebook for ways to serve community members, locals know Hannah Withers will go out of her way to help a friend.

But as a restaurateur, how do you feed your city when forced to shut down your businesses? You start by taking care of your own, and for Ben and Hannah, that’s the people who work in their bar and restaurant. Hourly workers have been majorly impacted by closures due to Covid-19. Many are without the benefits some full time employees have, and some Arkansans have yet to receive public unemployment assistance.  An idea sparked for Hannah and Ben: use the food from their restaurant to make delicious meals for their workers and anyone else in the bar and restaurant industry impacted by Covid-19. Community members buy a single meal or a subscription of meals then the Witherses get to work making and handing out the prepared meals to bar and restaurant workers. On their website, Ben and Hannah write,  “When we temporarily closed Leverett Lounge on March 16, we had a walk-in full of food, and the stark realization of how financially fragile restaurant workers are. While we are waiting for this to settle back into whatever our new normal will be, we decided to start feeding our crew to-go meals twice a week. That’s turned quickly into us feeding 100 unemployed people from bars and restaurants in Fayetteville that we love. We’d like to continue to do that, and allow whatever unemployment wages they receive to be spent on rent and utilities and essentials.” 

All across our state, people are lending a hand to help the folks who feed us, including organizations like Get Shift Done, a group that focuses on hunger relief for hospitality industry workers affected by Covid-19. Get Shift Done started in North Texas and later launched a central Arkansas chapter where restaurant owners and workers can download an app that connects local nonprofits in need of volunteers with hospitality workers who have lost their jobs. People in food service who no longer have work can sign up to deliver essential functions of local non-profits. By signing up, the hospitality workers receive a basic income and in turn, the nonprofits can execute critical services for Central Arkansans in need. 

In Little Rock, local veteran’s advocate Ashley Hudson and friend Michelle Stweart pooled resources from friends on social media to provide meals for Little Rock School District food service employees. These LRSD staff are working hard to provide meals themselves to kids in their district. In Arkansas, nearly one in four children struggles with hunger, and continuing school meal services during the pandemic is essential to feeding the kids in our communities. And what better way to say “Thank You” to those feeding our kids than to feed the LRSD food service staff, too? Through their gofundme, Hudson and Stewart teamed up with Community Bakery to provide breakfast bags for the LRSD food service workers and left a big tip for the hardworking people at Community Bakery as well-  kindness multiplied.

If there’s a group of people who know how to engineer service during a crisis, it’s those in hospitality. “When our industry stopped-almost overnight-our hearts were flooded with all the people we’ve worked with over the last 30 years in every restaurant we’ve worked in, all over the country. Nobody knows how to make something out of nothing like our industry people do. And nobody outside the hospitality industry understands the level of care we operate with everyday,” Withers says. “Thanks to the kind people in our community, we all get a sense of normalcy twice a week.”

Restaurants know that the timeline for going back to pre-covid-19 is indefinite. There has never been a time quite like this for people who work in the restaurant and hospitality industry. If you are in central Arkansas and are in the food service or hospitality industry and have lost work because of Covid-19, you can download the Get Shift Done app here. To purchase a meal or a meal subscription for restaurant and bar workers in NWA, visit Feed the Heard. Want to share other stories of how Arkansans are feeding Arkansans? Email is at info@arstrong.org.

Photo by Maxine’s Tap Room / Art by Chad Maupin + Anna Jacobs