Grand Cayman’s restaurateurs have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn’t prevented several of them from coming together to help feed residents of all nationalities, including those who have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown.
Teaming up with Cayman’s Acts of Random Kindness — better known as ARK — Markus Mueri and Neil Bryington, owners of Deckers restaurant and Camana Bay dining spots Abacus and KARoo, formed an ad-hoc initiative called “Cayman Strong United Against Hunger” in the face of the economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
“It started when I was called by a friend looking for a freezer to use to store meals for people who were unemployed with no money,” says Mueri.
Once he and Bryington learned of the increasing numbers of those in need of nourishment as a result of the mandated COVID-19 business closures, they decided they should do something to help – and see if they could get other restaurateurs involved, too.
Acts of Random Kindness (ARK)
Cayman’s Acts of Random Kindness is no stranger to helping feed hungry residents, says Cayman’s ARK Foundation Director and Founder Tara Nielsen.
“ARK has run a programme named ‘Feed Cayman’ for over 10 years,” she says. “The programme provides Foster’s gift cards to struggling and vulnerable families.”
After Cayman’s borders were closed because of the pandemic, and many businesses were forced to close as well, Nielsen knew ARK needed to act.
“We knew immediately the fallout was going to become a humanitarian crisis in regard to hunger; too many were already suffering from considerable food insecurity,” she said. “We decided to set up a soup kitchen and put a call to action for “Curfew Chefs” to make meals at home to deliver to ARK.”
The idea was to deliver these pre-cooked meals, along with Foster’s gift cards, to homes island-wide, which led ARK to contact Mueri and Bryington about a freezer to use as a storehouse for the meals.
“Neil and Markus loved the idea of the soup kitchen and immediately offered us the use of their freezer, kitchen and chefs, so it was the perfect solution,” says Nielsen.
With Mueri and Bryington on board, the initiative expanded quickly beyond the “Kindness Kitchen” — which is what ARK calls its soup kitchen — and home-cooked meals prepared by the Curfew Chefs.
“We are currently producing and delivering 350 soups per day, more than 200 meals a day and on top of this we receive 100 meals a week from Bacaro, 100 from PD’s and a substantial number of amazing meals from Kimpton Seafire every week,” Nielsen says.
In addition to the restaurant meals, members of the community are making meals at home for the effort.
“The Curfew Chefs are busy at home making dishes like lasagnas, cottage pies, chicken and rice and bringing them to us to deliver to people they have never met,” Nielsen says, adding that sometimes, as many as 200 of these home-cooked meals are delivered in a day.
The staging for the deliveries is done from Deckers, where Curfew Chefs can drop off their food, the kitchen staff prepares soup and meal packages and a dispatch crew sends out a team of volunteer drivers.
During the first week of May, more than 4,000 meals were delivered as a result of the Cayman Strong United Against Hunger initiative.
“Neil and Markus have been the most amazing partners,” Nielsen says. “It does not escape me that their businesses are suffering…as a result of this pandemic. However, I have watched them rise up to the challenge and focus their time and attention on ARK’s mission to provide for those who have nothing, literally no savings, no income, no family. They have demonstrated immense consideration for their staff and have rallied all their friends and contacts, who have made great financial contributions to join the Cayman Strong United Against Hunger campaign.”
Because of their multi-decade experience in the restaurant business on Grand Cayman, Mueri and Bryington are able to maximise donations to the cause.
“They have…produced the meals and soups at the most extraordinarily economical cost,” Nielsen said. “We would not be producing on this scale without their immense experience and counsel. As a result of their efforts, we are able to stretch every dollar to produce the maximum amount of healthy and hearty meals and soups.”
Local restaurants are helping in other ways as well. Bacaro, for example, not only provides 100 free meals a week to the cause, it also offers its customers who order takeaway or delivery food an option called “Make it 101” to further support ARK. In this initiative, customers can purchase a second meal for CI$5 to be delivered to ARK, in addition to the 100 weekly restaurant donations.
Bacaro owner/chef Federico Destro says he and his partner Barney Bako are dedicated to supporting the community through the current crisis.
“To be able to use our craft and passion to help members of the community that are in need is our pleasure, and also something we consider our duty,” he says. “For many families and individuals, it very suddenly became difficult to put food on the table. We know the difference a fresh, hot meal can make to lifting the spirit, so we are more than happy to do our part to support the good work of ARK in Cayman.”
In addition to their support of the soup kitchen, Mueri and Bryington launched an initiative called “One Hot Meal A Day.”
Every day except Sunday, a different meal is prepared — for example, on 1 May it was chicken curry with white rice and a slice of bread — and is available for pick-up at Deckers for CI$8.50, with ARK receiving $1 of that. Not only does that help raise money for ARK, it helps Mueri and Bryington keep their restaurant staff busy and employed.
Mueri and Bryington have also helped solicit donations from the private sector.
“We have been reaching out to companies to sponsor 100 meals for one day a week at CI$8.50 for three months,” says Nielsen. “With the cost of CI$8.50 per meal, Deckers is effectively able to produce 100 soups a day for free, so they are then able to produce even more soups daily, employ two chefs and cover all utilities, which is a cost we no longer have to carry. ARK receives $1 per meal to offset costs.”
So far, ARK has received enough donations to cover the $8.50 cost of 100 meals in the One Hot Meal A Day initiative from Monday through Thursday.
“We are seeking sponsors for Friday and Saturday to complete the full week,” says Nielsen.
The sponsored meals can be given to anyone — employees, frontline workers or donated for delivery by ARK.
Another local company, Boxed — a local producer of frozen meals available for sale in the supermarket — is also working with ARK by allowing residents to order cases of frozen meals to be delivered to ARK.
“This is a great and easy way to contribute to the cause if you don’t like to cook, and it supports a local business,” Nielsen said. “You can also order home delivery from Island Supply and add a donation to ARK.”
Although some of these donations are small, Nielsen says they add up and also help the community in another way.
“It’s absolutely a win-win to support the restaurants, small businesses and staff at this very bleak time,” she says. “Our soup kitchen supports four chefs currently and Neil and Markus have been amazing in supporting their staff and providing extra chefs, and a manager to help us run the soup kitchen.”
Another key partner in the effort to keep everyone in the Cayman community fed has been Foster’s, which Nielsen says stepped up early on and pledged support to ARK’s soup kitchen.
“Foster’s Group…were the first to enquire with NPOs to see what initiatives were going into place to meet the crisis,” she says. “They really liked the soup kitchen concept and pledged three months support for March, April and May to enable us to produce 300 soups a day.”
Mueri, who has had a first-hand view of the private sector and community support for the Cayman Strong United Against Hunger effort, says he has been awed by what he’s seen.
“There are so many good deeds being done by the community, it’s unbelievable.”
Those wishing to donate to the ARK-led Cayman Strong United Against Hunger cause can visit www.caymansark.com/donate-online or make a direct deposit into Cayman’s Ark Butterfield Bank account number 01201039292 (USD) or 02201039292 (KYD).
About the author
Alan Markoff has worked with Dart as the editor for Camana Bay Times for three years and has been writing professionally since 1997. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Alan graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with a degree in English, and first moved to the Cayman Islands in 1982. He has 16 years of experience in the real estate industry and previously worked as a journalist for Cayman Compass before joining Dart to relaunch the Camana Bay Times monthly newspaper. An avid baseball fan, Alan loves travelling but also schedules trips back home around catching a summer game or two with his home team, Cleveland Indians. He is a movie buff who spends many an evening catching a film at Camana Bay Cinema. It was at one of these movies that he met his wife, Lynn!