Relief Effort for Restaurant Workers Expands to National Landing

The Freshman's unopened cafe space is serving as a supply and food distribution site for the D.C. nonprofit Hook Hall Helps.
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The Freshman, a forthcoming cafe, is temporarily serving as a food distribution site for hospitality workers.

Nick Freshman had hoped to open The Freshman, a coffee/cocktail bar and all-day dining concept, nearly a year ago at National Landing. But Covid-19 forced a delay in plans.

Now, the longtime Arlington resident and restaurateur has a reason to open the doors. He’s partnering with D.C.-based Hook Hall Helps, a nonprofit that’s been working since March to provide meals and critical supplies to struggling hospitality industry workers who’ve lost their livelihood.  Starting this week, The Freshman will be open each Thursday from 3–5 p.m. to serve as a south-of-the-river outpost for the relief effort.

“There’s a huge need for aid for hospitality workers here in Arlington and nearby Alexandria, and I think we’re geographically a perfect hub,” says Freshman, whose 3,400-square-foot eatery is conveniently located near Metro and several bus routes. “I have the space for food and beverage that I’m unable to use…so, to me, this is a valuable way to activate it to help people in my own industry and community at a time when they need it the most.”

During the areawide lockdown last March, Anna Valero, owner of Hook Hall—currently a Viking-themed outdoor bar in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood—mobilized area chefs and restaurants to prepare family meals for out-of-work hospitality employees, using perishables that otherwise would have gone to waste in kitchens that had gone dark.  Expanding her outreach, she partnered with the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) to found Hook Hall Helps.

From March to June, the nonprofit distributed more than 500 meals a week and raised upward of $575,000. Hook Hall Helps is supported by donations to RAMW’s Worker Relief Fund.

With the arrival of summer (when many restaurants reopened), Hook Hall Helps took a break to conserve funds in anticipation of worsening economic and public health conditions come winter, when the cold was expected to keep folks from dining out.

Now, with Covid cases spiking, patios sparse and area restaurants either restricted or closed, those fateful scenarios are playing out as expected. A recent RAMW survey found member restaurants operating at only 40 percent of their normal staffing levels.  Even those who are employed are working fewer hours.

“It’s not just those that are out of work,” says Valero, who had to furlough 75 of her own staff when the pandemic began. “With reduced hours, you can be employed and still food insecure. By adding this second location [in Virginia], we make it easier for people to gain access to what they might need.”

Hospitality workers struggling to make ends meet are encouraged—although not required—to sign up online at the Hook Hall Helps website to receive family meals and kits packed with supplies like toilet paper, feminine products, granola bars and canned goods. Each family meal is designed to last three or four days.

Valero says she likes to throw in a treat, like chocolate or cookies “because we’re all still human and that goes a long way.”

Meals are prepared by D.C. partner restaurants like The Queen Vic, Shaw’s Tavern and Rasa, which also has a location in Crystal City. Partner restaurants are compensated for the meals they make, which helps them stay afloat while simultaneously supporting the workers who keep their kitchens and dining rooms buzzing at full capacity in good times.

“What’s special about the hospitality industry is that it’s a whole group of people who dedicate their life to serving,” says Valero, who is looking for more partner restaurants in Northern Virginia. “The hospitality industry wants—and is—stepping up to take care of its own.”

According to county data, Arlington is home to just over 300 restaurants which, prior to the pandemic, helped support more than 17,000 jobs in hospitality and food service.

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Restaurateur Nick Freshman

Freshman is now among those calling for a federal relief bill to help save small, independently owned restaurants—the kinds of businesses that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and are most at risk of closure. He’s also making the most of a dismal situation by putting his idle cafe to good use. It’s not the grand opening he envisioned, but he says providing a distribution site fits with his ethos as a small business owner.

“What I’m hearing [about the hardships families are weathering] is heartbreaking,” says the restaurateur, who co-owns Spider Kelly’s and is a partner in Thompson Italian and various other DMV concepts through his hospitality incubator, Mothersauce Partners. “I see this as an unfortunate circumstance that we’re in, but also a good opportunity for us to show that…the mission of this restaurant will be, in no small part, to serve this community.”

He hopes Hook Hall Helps will extend its reach even further if the distribution effort from National Landing proves successful.

“Anna is inspirational in what she’s done to create this,” he says. “Right now, we are needed as a hub. If we are needed to do more, to find more partners, to increase the footprint, then we will do that, too. But this is her show. We’re just supporting her.”

Hook Hall Helps is now distributing food and supplies each Thursday from 3–5 p.m. at The Freshman, located at 2102 Crystal Drive, Arlington, and each Monday from 3–5 p.m. at Hook Hall, located at 3400 Georgia Ave. N.W., in the District. Online donations are appreciated. 

Categories: Food & Drink