WeWork Food Labs members rally during the coronavirus crisis

These innovative food companies are pivoting to help others in a time of need

Food is communal. We cook together. We eat together. We pass recipes from generation to generation, and become friends with others at our favorite local restaurants. We mark celebrations with cake and champagne, and in times of crisis, we deliver comfort food.

But in this time of global uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus, our communal responsibility is to limit gatherings and socially distance from one another. This mass isolation is especially hard-hitting for the food and beverage industry. With restaurants shuttered and many grocery store shelves bare, food and beverage companies have been forced to innovate to reach their communities.

WeWork Food Labs is home to over 400 entrepreneurs dedicated to solving today’s most pressing food challenges, including the industry fallout from COVID-19. Our membership includes restaurant groups, consumer brands, distribution companies, service providers, community platforms, and food media outlets.

The diverse members of WeWork Food Labs are supporting communities during this challenging time in many different ways, whether it’s delivering healthful snacks to healthcare workers or educating frontline employees on safe food-handling practices. Here’s how members have adapted to pitch in and lend a hand where needed.

Diverting food from landfills

Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted. The mission of Food For All is to further the zero food waste movement by rewarding the businesses and people who take care of our planet. The Food For All app is a marketplace where restaurants can post surplus meals on the app at 50 percent off for pickup during designated times, often an hour before closing. It’s designed to ensure that delicious meals are tasted, not wasted. 

The Food For All app allows restaurants to post surplus meals at discounted prices, helping to make sure food is consumed and not wasted. Photograph courtesy of Food For All.

“Never has our company name sung louder for us than it does today,” says Sabine Valenga, cofounder and CMO of Food For All. “We are motivated to work harder than ever to support the communities that have long supported us.” 

In response to the current crisis, Food For All launched two programs to provide relief to restaurants and individuals facing food shortages. It’s inviting people to donate or receive a hot meal (the app anonymously matches donors to those in need of a prepared meal). And as restaurant partners face unprecedented challenges, users can preorder Food For All meals from restaurants already in the app to help get cash to restaurants during this critical period.

Supporting heroes on the frontlines

Founders Market is a digital media company that gives founders of food startups a platform to tell their stories and connect with consumers. The company is organizing a new donation initiative that brings together the incredible New York City food and beverage community to support the healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic: #FoundersGive⁣.

“There’s this incredible, positive, optimistic energy surrounding the entire #FoundersGive initiative,” explains Cole Riley, head of Founders Market and organizer of #FoundersGive.

“From the warehouse team to the hospital staffers coordinating our donations to the brands giving hundreds of thousands of dollars of product to these incredible healthcare workers, everyone is unified and super excited to grow this effort and make the biggest impact possible,” says Riley.

Since launching just over a week ago, #FoundersGive has secured more than 100,000 donated products from over 74 brands, including fellow Food Labs Members ByrdFood, which makes savory oat and seed clusters, and The Lil’ Pops, a company that specializes in popped ancient grains, like sorghum. 

“We’re also excited to partner with some of the largest food and beverage companies in the country, like Sabra [also a Food Labs member], which, in less than 24 hours from when we connected, committed to donating more than 11,000 of their hummus and guacamole snackers,” says Riley. All donations will be distributed to healthcare workers at area hospitals.

Learn more about how to get involved here.

Providing preparedness training to essential workers

ESL Works has historically delivered mobile-first training in English as a second language to customers, some of which are large companies. In response to the coronavirus crisis, ESL Works launched stopCOVID.co. Businesses of all sizes can sign up for the program and get free coronavirus preparedness training for their entire workforce via SMS text and WhatsApp. Owners receive daily reporting via email on their teams’ progress.

The ESL Works engineering team on a remote video call. Photograph courtesy of ESL Works.

This is critical at a time when the food service industry is sustaining itself through delivery and pickup operations, which is largely staffed by immigrant workers. Communication and training are more important now than ever before, as employees learn how to protect themselves and their customers from potential illness.

Virtual mentorship for emerging food brands

New York City–based food consultancy JPG Resources hosts in-person mentor sessions and monthly panel conversations for the food industry at WeWork Food Labs. Now, in light of current circumstances, JPG is taking its programming online.

“As an integral partner to WeWork Food Labs, JPG will provide resources and support for emerging brands during this challenging time,” says Missy Lapine, director of innovation and nutrition. “JPG has put together a roundtable of experts that will be available biweekly, virtually, to address questions and concerns.”

During the first weekly roundtable discussion, experts helped growing food businesses navigate the implications of the recently announced government stimulus package.

Helping restaurant wholesalers deliver to home consumers

Pepper is on a mission to design a better way for restaurants and suppliers to work together. Its mobile app, launched earlier this year, offers a fast, reliable, free-to-use solution for restaurants to purchase ingredients, instantly connect with suppliers, and access the data needed to power their businesses, all in one place.

In response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Pepper is piloting a beta version of Pepper Groceries—an online ordering platform where you can buy straight from New York City specialty wholesalers fighting to persevere in the current climate. These wholesalers typically only sell in bulk to restaurants. But due to ongoing restaurant closures, they are sitting on warehouses full of fresh ingredients with no customers to sell them to.

“Like so many of our friends in the food service sector, the team at Pepper has been heartbroken by the impact of COVID-19 on the Greater New York restaurant community,” says CEO Bowie Cheung. 

“In addition to thousands of restaurateurs, this community includes hundreds of local food suppliers who make a living delivering fresh ingredients to restaurants every day—and due to the events of the past few weeks, nearly all of them are fighting to stay alive,” he says.

Pepper allows home consumers to restock their shelves with essential food and home supplies while helping some of those hit hardest in the community.

If you are interested in getting involved or learning more about WeWork Food Labs, please contact foodlabs@wework.com.

Tessa Price is a New York City–based senior manager at WeWork Food Labs where she helps early-stage companies navigate the complexities of the food industry.

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