It’s no secret that small businesses and restaurants have been devastated by the economic impacts brought on by the coronavirus, but now local government is helping by buying meals directly from restaurants to feed first responders.
Henrico County and Richmond have launched programs that give on-duty first responders in each locality a meal (up to $15) from an approved list of local restaurants.
The details are a little different in each locality, but the emphasis on local is the same in both: The meal must come from a locally owned restaurant — no chains or franchises.
And it all started with a restaurant owner.
In late March, Cari Tretina, chief of staff to Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas, got an urgent call from Bobby Haller, owner of Sandston Smokehouse restaurant. Haller said his restaurant might have to close for good if he didn’t get some help, according to Tretina.
An idea came out of that urgent Saturday call. By Tuesday, Henrico had launched the first version of the program that would become “Nourish Henrico.”
“Restaurants collect around $30 million a year for us in meals tax. This is us giving back to them,” Tretina said. “And when you compare what restaurants have done for us — for our budget and our schools, which is where the meals tax money goes — there’s no comparison.”
Henrico launched its program in late March with around 50 restaurants. Today it has more than 100 participating, helping feed up to 900 front-line workers daily. The program launched for firefighters and police officers, but it’s expanded in the past month to include janitors, landfill workers and mental health social services employees.
Workers simply go to any participating restaurant of their choice and Henrico picks up the tab.
Tretina said the county has repurposed money set aside for advertising and sports tourism and has thus far spent about $130,000 — or $20,000 to $30,000 a week — at local restaurants.
She said she’s heard from owners who count on this program’s participants as their biggest customers of the week. Some restaurant owners have even been able to hire back workers, she said.
“It gives me goose bumps.”
Toast restaurant owners Josh and Jessica Bufford said the program has been immensely helpful to them — and it helps them move the needle every day.
“It has helped immediately,” Jessica Bufford said. “It’s easily two dozen people a day, without a lot of red tape.”
John Murden, general manager of Garnett’s Cafe in the Fan District, had a similar response to Richmond’s program.
“This is the most direct help we’ve gotten so far,” Murden said.
The program officially launched in Richmond in mid-April, but Mayor Levar Stoney helped raise awareness for it Wednesday at Garnett’s. Stoney helped Murden hand out roughly 30 lunches to Richmond firefighters.
“That’s a proper lunch right there,” Murden said, noting on some days, he’d be happy to have just those 30 orders. Instead, “it’s a boon on top of everything.”
Murden said they were able to do the lunches for about $10 a head, which works out to roughly $300 in the coffers for the day.
Richmond is running its program — called “COVID-19 First Responder Meal Program” — on a weekly schedule. And on some weeks, Garnett’s is on the schedule twice, so it’s double the impact.
Richmond has set aside roughly $500,000 to pay for the meals, which can be purchased by about 700 first responders and city workers, including police officers, firefighters and Richmond Ambulance and 911 dispatch workers. Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said the $500,000 is coming from “departmental savings and cuts.”
“The backbone of our city is our restaurants and our first responders,” Stoney said. “This puts them both together.”
To participate, restaurants in the city need to fill out a contact information form, be up to date on their meals tax payments as of February, and have fewer than 25 employees at each location. Restaurants can apply at .
Restaurants will be assigned one or more days where the program pays for a first responder’s meal, with the restaurants changing each day.
Richmond currently has 29 restaurants on its approved list, but it is looking for more, said Leonard Sledge, director of the Richmond Department of Economic Development.
“We have the best food scene in the country,” Stoney said. “If one restaurant doesn’t reopen, we all suffer.”