Chef charity auction the newest pandemic pivot for nonprofit Service!

Through assisting and advocating for service industry workers, Service! cofounder Sangeeta Lakhani said she has found her post-restaurant career calling

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Last spring and summer, Sangeeta Lakhani and others with nonprofit Service! made 200 free meals per day to feed service industry workers.

Soon after the pandemic shut down businesses in March of 2020, one Facebook conversation led to 11,000 free meals for service industry workers.   

Sangeeta Lakhani, former co-owner and chef of Short North restaurant The Table, began spit-balling ideas with Matthew Heaggans of Preston’s: A Burger Joint (and formerly Ambrose and Eve) about feeding Columbus service industry workers, many of whom survive on tips and suddenly had no source of income.  

“We just knew we had to do something,” Lakhani said recently by phone. “It's easy to be like, ‘Here's a great idea. Somebody should totally do this.’ Or, you just roll up your sleeves and do it.” 

Lakhani and Heaggans teamed up with Bake Me Happy co-owner Letha Pugh and restaurant industry veteran Reed Woogerd  to create Service!, a nonprofit that offered its first free meal to hospitality workers a few short weeks after restaurants closed, eventually ramping up to 200 meals per day for a total of about 11,000 meals over several weeks in the spring and summer.  

“It's insane that that happened,” Lakhani said. “It seemed like this harebrained idea. Our restaurants were shut down, we just laid off everybody, and we didn't know how to run a nonprofit or cook at that scale.” 

Over time, as unemployment benefits kicked in and some restaurants began offering pickup and delivery services and/or opening in limited capacities, some service industry workers were in a slightly better place. When meal pickups dropped to fewer than 100 per day, the Service! cofounders surveyed the people the nonprofit had been assisting, and many of the workers expressed need for financial help to pay bills. Through a steady stream of donations, Service! had the resources to lend a hand. 

“Money kept pouring in,” Lakhani said. “We were really lucky, I think, because we were the only nonprofit that was helping service industry people at that point. Everything else was going towards front line workers.” 

Beginning in August, Service! awarded 25 weekly micro-grants of $250 to service industry workers. Then, over Thanksgiving, the nonprofit pivoted again, giving away 100 turkeys with sides. “We’re still young, and the way we came about, it gives us a chance to be flexible. We don’t have higher-ups to answer to. We are the board members, and we do all the hands-on work, so it’s easy for us to shift as we see the changing needs,” Lakhani said. 

Most recently, Service! began a new fundraiser in the form of an eight-week chef charity auction. Each week, Service! offers up a new chef, who will make a private dinner for six at a date to be determined by the chef and winning bidder. Minimum bids begin at $250. 

Service is now in week four of the action, which previously featured chefs Andy Smith (Roys Avenue Supper Club, previously Sycamore and Rockmill Tavern) and Jonathan Olson (The Royce). The third featured chef is Lakhani herself, and that auction ends today (Monday, March 22) at 5 p.m. (as of noon, the winning bid sits at $1,200). Next up is Jay Kleven, currently of Cleaver and formerly of Rockmill Tavern; that auction ends Monday, March 29, at 5 p.m. 

“We pay for the ingredients up to a certain amount, and then everything else that comes in goes directly to grants. … We're picking one person a week for the next eight weeks and giving out $1,000 per person,” Lakhani said. “At first we wanted to help everybody: How many people can we touch? Now we're narrowing it down and trying to make a bigger impact for fewer people. I think $1,000 can be a game changer for someone.” 

While Lakhani and the others originally assumed Service! would be a temporary venture, they now realize the nonprofit could play a valuable role for hospitality workers in the long term. “Hopefully we stick around past the pandemic and provide service industry [employees] with resources or a lawyer if needed, an accountant if needed, trade services, education, help them with transport — whatever the needs are,” she said. “We want them to have somebody that speaks for them on more of a micro-level than the Ohio Restaurant Association — somebody that can actually relate to them.”  

Service! has even inspired Lakhani to pursue a career change. After spending 25 years in the restaurant business, including as a co-founder of Bodega, Lakhani recently sold The Table, where she served as chef and co-owner. And while she treasures her time there, Lakhani described the feeling after the sale as one of relief. “I can't imagine trying to navigate this mess right now, with 6 feet apart and 50 percent capacity. Your bills don't change. Your landlord isn't taking 50 percent of the rent. AEP isn't taking 50 percent of the electric bill,” she said.  

Now, Lakhani is focusing most of her time on Service! “I think this is what I want to do, or something along these lines — however I can keep helping service industry folks,” she said. “The way we've been running restaurants needs to change. People need to come together and lead that change, and I hope to be on that team. I want things to get better for people, and I think the service industry gets neglected.” 

Lakhani, though, is still doing some cooking, just not in a traditional restaurant. Recently she launched Tiffinwali, in which Lakhani takes diners on a private, homecooked tour of Indian cuisine every other Sunday. “I've always stayed away from cooking Indian food, just because that's what people expect: ‘You’re Indian, so you must cook Indian food,’” she said. “[But] COVID made me really homesick, and I haven't been able to go back to India since all of this happened. … It’s kind of brought me back to my roots this last year.” 

So far, Lakhani hasn’t cooked food from a region of Indian more than once. “People get to learn about India and taste things that they would never otherwise taste. There's only North Indian and South Indian restaurants here, but there are so many different cuisines in India,” she said. 

So far, Tiffinwali has scratched the cooking itch, and Lakhani said she has no intentions of launching a new restaurant any time soon. Instead, she’ll continue advocating on behalf of hospitality workers, so that when someone else decides to start a new venture, they can do so within a better, healthier industry. “Somebody needs to scream louder. Somebody needs to make those changes,” she said. “I can sit back and say, ‘Somebody should do that,’ or I can just decide this is what I'm going to do.”