Beginning today, the new charitable venture from Sangeeta Lakhani, Letha Pugh, Matthew Heaggans, Catie Randazzo and Reed Woogerd will provide free meals to restaurant industry workers hurt by COVID-19 closures

Sangeeta Lakhani isn’t sure how many stages of grief are involved with living through a global pandemic, having never before done so, but the co-founder and chef of Short North restaurant The Table estimates that she’s somewhere in the third phase of adjusting to this new reality.

“I think the first phase was an initial freak out, like, ‘Holy shit, the sky is falling. What is happening?’ And then everything just crumbled. Then the second was that reactionary phase, where it was like, ‘I gotta do everything! I gotta apply for these loans! I gotta set up a GoFundMe! I gotta save everybody's lives!’” said Lakhani, who has opted to close The Table during the current “stay at home” order. “And now I'm in phase three, where I’m realizing a lot of this shit is out of my control. I've done what I can do as far as loans and whatever the horse and pony show it is that the government is putting on. And I'm coming to terms with making a new plan for the future.”

In the interim, though, Lakhani hasn’t lost sight of the present, and in the midst of the whirlwind of sweeping closures and general societal chaos, she connected with a group of like-minded folks, including Bake Me Happy co-owner Letha Pugh, restaurant industry veteran Reed Woogerd and Matthew Heaggans and Catie Randazzo of Ambrose and Eve and Preston’s: A Burger Join. Working together, the crew quickly hatched relief venture Service!, a new charity launched to feed service industry workers who are struggling to make ends meet amid the coronavirus-driven closures that have decimated employment at restaurants.

Brainstormed just weeks ago, the venture is already set to dish up its first free meal today (beef or tofu chili served with cornbread). Pre-orders must be placed  a day in advance via the Service! website, and contactless pickup takes place from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at both The Table and Ambrose and Eve.

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“Our employees, we talk to them, and we’re starting all of these GoFundMes, but the more you talk, the more you hear, ‘I filed for unemployment but I haven’t seen anything pending. What does this mean? What am I going to do?’” Lakhani said. “That’s been a common theme with these kids, and, I know this sounds cliche, but they are my family. I’ve been in this industry … over 25 years. This is what I do. These are the people I rely on everyday to help me chase my crazy dreams. I couldn’t be here or do what I do without the people who work in the service industry.”

While the scope of the COVID-19 crisis can overwhelm, Service!, which is rooted in the tradition of the restaurant staff meal, narrows the focus, aiming to feed those who have dedicated themselves to feeding others. 

“Most of these people are hourly workers who were already treading the poverty line and at this point are well below it,” Lakhani said. “Even when unemployment does kick in, it’s not going to cover their wages. Then there are bills to pay, and even if they can defer them, at some point it’s all going to catch up. … So we were pretty focused from the get-go. It was like, ‘What do we know how to do? Feed people.’”

With deep collective experience in launching restaurants, the Service! team was well-equipped for the quick pivot. Bake Me Happy’s Pugh, for instance, tapped into her business expertise, refined during an intensive, three-month Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program she recently completed, working on the back end with Woogerd to help establish the charity as a nonprofit. “I’m not a cook, but I’ve been doing quite a bit of talking to folks at Franklin County, and with the city, too, because we still need funding, as well,” said Pugh, who recently closed Bake Me Happy for a brief mental health hiatus (the shop will resume normal carry-out business in two weeks). “Each and every one of the people involved in this has used all of the resources available to them, because the situation is dire.”

“We work best under conditions like this,” Lakhani said. “The kitchen’s on fire, things are burning, the dining room floor is full and some dude just cut off his finger. All right, great, let's get this done. Let's push out the service.”

Lakhani said the idea is to start small, with an initial cap of 150 to 200 meals a day, and then gradually scale up, with the intention of running Service!  for the length of the state-mandated closure and possibly beyond, if need dictates.

“These are people who have dedicated their careers, their lives to making people happy, to taking away other people's problems for those two or three hours that they step into a restaurant,” Lakhani said. “They're kind of like the ghost warriors, right? People don't remember their servers’ names, and there's nobody fighting for them, so we have to do it for ourselves. We have to do it for our people for our community.”