Many Milwaukeeans are struggling right now, in ways some of us can’t fathom. For those with barriers to accessing food, a basic human necessity, this is a truly terrifying time. Since the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, The Tandem restaurant has been following a different model of service – feeding the neediest families in our community.
That has been far from easy. If not for the donations from community members, the help of chefs and restaurant owners in the area who have supplied and prepared meals, and the efforts of The Tandem’s owner, Caitlin Cullen, the restaurant wouldn’t be able to feed families living in Milwaukee’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Now the restaurant located on 18th and Fond du Lac is getting the support – from an international nonprofit devoted to helping communities in need – to keep its mission carrying on indefinitely.
It all started with… not a cold call but… a cold email from Tarik Moody, the director of digital strategy and innovation and on-air host at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee – and my co-host on the culinary podcast This Bites. Moody was having, as he describes it, a low day. He was thinking about people he knows – other African-American men in our community – who had or potentially had COVID-19. “I felt useless,” Moody says. “I thought, ‘I should do something.’” When he thought about someone who was doing something in this city, it was The Tandem’s Caitlin Cullen.
He’d heard about James Beard Award-winning chef José Andrés’ Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, which provides meals to families in communities that need the support, whether due to a natural disaster like a hurricane or a global pandemic like we’re experiencing now. Moody booted up his computer, searched for the World Central Kitchen website and found a contact email. Not knowing who the email would reach or if it would ever be responded to, he nevertheless poured his heart into a message about The Tandem and the free community meals Cullen and her staff were serving to as many as she could feed. He told them Cullen was “committed to a community that looks like me,” he says, and that was not something just instigated by the pandemic. She’d always been doing “something unique,” he says. To Moody’s surprise, he received a reply from WCK “within four hours.”
And little more than a day later, Moody and Cullen were on a Zoom conference call with Josh Phelps, WCK’s relief operations manager. Moody had hoped to surprise Cullen with the news but getting her on a Saturday morning Zoom call required sharing some details as to why she was needed on the phone call to begin with. Once she knew, Cullen says she was “freaking the f—k out.”
Cullen answered a lot of questions, paperwork was exchanged, and within days, Cullen learned that World Central Kitchen would enable The Tandem to continue to serve 400 meals on weekdays and at least 200 family meal kits on the weekends. The other boon in all this was The Tandem’s partner restaurants would be better compensated. It wasn’t just the small Tandem staff putting these meals together. Restaurants such as Strange Town, Club Charlie’s, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, Amilinda, Dandan, Three Brothers and Goodkind have been preparing meals.
Several of those restaurants were no longer open and had coolers of perishable food. Many were, like Cullen, interested in making sure the disadvantaged wouldn’t go hungry. Cullen also wanted to make sure those restaurants were getting some payment too, enough to help sustain them. Early on in the pandemic, Cullen was in reactive mode, just trying to make meals out of food they had on hand. After two days of serving curbside meals to paying customers, she pulled the plug on that, or rather talked to her staff about what they could do instead. She knew what she wanted to do – serve the community. But she wanted to make sure everyone else felt the same. They did, she says: “It was a really easy decision to make, a no brainer. Our whole goal is to feed people and help restaurants.”
Cullen wrote of that time on The Tandem website: “On Wednesday 18 March, we opened at 11am with 85 free meals… by 2pm they were all gone. That Thursday, we opened at 11am with nearly 150 meals… by 1pm, they were all gone. On Friday, we opened at 11am and by 3pm, 200 meals had walked out the door… and the demand shows no sign of slowing up, particularly as Milwaukee’s central city – our friends and neighbors – are now the nucleus of Wisconsin’s infected population. What’s more, while a lot of the people we have been feeding have been a constituency that often rely on free assistance to feed themselves, we are seeing more and more patrons who are not the traditional food bank clientele – wage workers who have been laid off, service industry folks with no job to go to and not enough in the bank to eat at home much longer, and neighbors who are delivering meals to community members and families who are quarantined without supplies. We anticipate the need will only grow larger with every passing day of this crisis.”
Within days, The Tandem was doing over 300 meals a day. Now she says they’re aiming to prepare 400 meals a day. How they did it was a combination of things. Early on in the pandemic, Cullen had added a “donate” button on The Tandem’s website so the public could make monetary contributions. Local businesses Cullen either knew or that had heard about The Tandem on news reports also pitched in with food donations – everything from loaves from Breadsmith to frozen pizzas from Palermo’s. And most importantly, local restaurant owners and chefs stepped in to make meals. What the support from World Central Kitchen enables The Tandem to do is help its partner restaurants out. Instead of the $5 per meal that Cullen says she was able to cobble together from donations to give to the restaurants, she can pay them $10 for each meal. If the restaurant prepares 100 meals, that’s $1,000 she can give the restaurant to help cover the cost of the ingredients, wages for the staff and other expenses they have.
To help those small, independently run restaurants that have little chance of surviving without support is precisely why World Central Kitchen was formed. And Cullen is exactly the kind of on-the-ground leader they’re looking for. “She embodies the spirit of the COVID response,” says WCK’s Phelps. “It’s powerful to see that happening in Milwaukee.”
Cullen feels a measure of relief that, with the backing of this nonprofit, the community meal program isn’t hanging on by a thread. But she wants more. As Wisconsin’s “Safer At Home” order continues, restaurants that no longer have the revenue from a buzzing dining room mount debt from which some will never recover. Cullen would like to connect with a broader spectrum of restaurants on the North and South sides to help them weather this economic storm.
As for 88Nine’s Moody, who just wanted to do something positive… he’s “gonna be eating free chicken at [The Tandem] for the rest of his life,” says the restaurant’s boss lady.