Impact Series

Two efforts fill stunning tech hole between eating places, donors and those that are hungry

District 1 Saigon in Redmond, Wash. has been providing meals for people in the community who are in need. Taylor Hoang, CEO of Taylor Hoang Restaurants, which include District 1, has provided the meals at or below cost. (Taylor Hoang Restaurants Photo)

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Seattle’s Vanessa Dyce saw her community coming undone and wanted to help. Dyce, a software engineer, was looking for a cause she believed in and where her particular skill set would be useful.

Katherine Cheng, head of global and community impact at Expedia Group, had been working on a project with her company to employ out-of-work tailors from arts organizations to sew personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. That effort revealed other challenges in the community that she was eager to solve.

CEO Taylor Hoang oversees the five Vietnamese eateries in her restaurants group, including spots near the headquarters for Microsoft and Starbucks.

“When the order was given to work from home, that literally wiped us out,” she said. But as Hoang was managing employee furloughs, she also wanted to meet the calls for help from local food banks.

COVID-19 has ravaged the economy and unraveled social safety nets that provide meals for people who are hungry. Dyce, Cheng and Hoang are helping lead efforts to repair some of the damage. They’re working on donation-driven projects that connect financially hard-hit restaurants with people in need, including healthcare providers on the frontlines and low-income kids, seniors, people experiencing homelessness and others.

Food provided to those in need by Taylor Hoang Restaurants. (Taylor Hoang Restaurants Photo)

Dyce is the local lead for Off Their Plate, a volunteer organization started in Boston in response to the pandemic. Working with restaurants, the effort has provided more than 8,600 meals for Seattle-area healthcare workers since starting here in mid April.

Cheng, with her co-founder Marie Gill, are launching FoodPair, a startup featuring a platform to connect restaurants with organizations who are providing meals for those in need. Their plan is to grow to include farmers and food distributors and to help manage where food is needed and where excess food can be delivered. FoodPair will be run as a nonprofit.

Hoang, who leads Taylor Hoang Restaurants, has been advising FoodPair and supports the concept. Only two of her restaurants are currently operating in some capacity.

“We need a sustainable model,” said Hoang, “where we can help the community and keep our doors somewhat open.”

Serving up smarter logistics

Dyce discovered Off Their Plate, a nonprofit that uses donations to pay restaurants to prepare meals, while browsing Instagram. She liked that OTP was run by volunteers, and offered to establish a Seattle location. Dyce began connecting with hospitals and restaurants. Using Google Docs to organize operations, in her first week she coordinated delivery of 300 meals to healthcare providers. As the program grew and the logistics became increasingly complicated, Dyce spent three hours one week to orchestrate delivery of 1,200 meals.

“Early on I saw there was a need for organizing these logistics,” Dyce said.

Vanessa Dyce, a software engineer, is leading Off Their Plate’s Seattle operations. (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Dyce)

One of the OTP volunteers had a connection with Smartsheet, the Bellevue, Wash.-based work collaboration software company, and Dyce reached out. The organizations collaborated to build a tool that facilitates communication between the different parties and automates some of the logistics.

Last week OTP Seattle provided 2,100 meals and the delivery coordination took only 30 minutes, Dyce said.

“In the case of OTP, they were quickly identified as a cause we wanted to partner with because there was clear value our platform could provide to help them scale and accelerate their own impact,” said Katie Bouwkamp, Smartsheet’s director of global culture communications, by email.

Dyce is sharing the tool with the other eight cities with OTP operations. The platform is particularly useful as the organizations are looking to transition to serving other communities facing food shortages as the healthcare workers are in less need of support.

“We’re redefining what is the frontline,” Dyce said.

Supporting restaurants that sustain community

Katherine Cheng, FoodPair co-founder and Expedia Group’s head of global and community impact. (FoodPair Photo)

The coronavirus pandemic has blown up the normal links between supply and demand. Chefs and cooks are out of work despite the fact that many people are hungry. Farmers have rotting, surplus foods as restaurants cut their orders. Food banks are struggling to manage sudden surges and deficits in food and funding from donors and government programs. Restaurants at the heart of communities are at risk of permanently closing.

Cheng and Gill looked at these disconnects, knew there had to be a better way and decided to launch FoodPair. The organization is using a version of the workforce management platform built by Seattle’s Modifi, for whom Gill previously worked, to digitally coordinate the disparate sectors and needs.

Given Seattle’s status as a tech hub and city for great dining, “it’s surprising there hasn’t been more technology in this space,” Cheng said.

In a similar approach to Off The Plate, FoodPair will connect restaurants and organizations in need and facilitate the transfer of donations to pay for the meals.

Marie Gill, co-founder of FoodPair. (FoodPair Photo)

The duo behind FoodPair met years ago while working in leadership at Starbucks. They’re focused on making sure smaller mom-and-pop and ethnic restaurants can access these opportunities.

The platform will allow healthcare operations, food banks, YMCAs, schools, programs for seniors, and others to request a certain number of meals (selecting breakfast, lunch or dinner) and specify dietary needs. Approved restaurants will sign up to fulfill whatever portion of the order they can manage. The restaurants will receive $10 per meal and have 48 hours to fill orders.

FoodPair’s founders plan to launch a pilot project in King County, which includes Seattle and Bellevue, to provide 21,000 meals over a month’s time in partnership with five restaurants. The group needs additional donations or other support to cover the costs of the pilot. Expedia has provided some funding.

The platform, said Gill, “is rock solid, quite elegant, and sustainable past our current crisis.”

Seattle to lead in restaurant recovery?

Taylor Hoang, CEO of Taylor Hoang Restaurants. (LinkedIn Photo)

In addition to Taylor Hoang Restaurants, FoodPair is working with the work training program FareStart and other area restaurateurs in the development of their strategy. Off Their Plate and FoodPair have both consulted with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that for a decade has been helping with meal deliveries in crisis situations.

If the restaurants can stay afloat even in a reduced capacity and workers keep working, “that will help bring us back to a stronger economy faster,” Hoang said.

As COVID closures ease off and restaurants start reopening, it will be difficult to know how quickly customers will return, making supply ordering and staffing difficult. These new programs could provide some predictability and continue supporting hungry people. Further into the future, the nonprofits could offer long-term solutions for connecting donors, restaurants and those in need of food.

“There is an opportunity,” Gill said, “for Seattle to set a path forward for the world to follow.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to  remove reference to Vanessa Dyce’s previous employer.

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