Madison’s dining community’s dedication to serving others continues during a public health crisis

Many have found creative ways to support fellow small business owners, furloughed service industry workers and essential health care workers.
Nurse With Pizza
Photo courtesy of Erin Bork
Nurse practitioner Amanda Conway accepts a food donation from Erin Bork at a SSM Health Dean Medical Group Clinic.

In the nearly two and a half months since Gov. Tony Evers ordered Wisconsin bars and restaurants to close, Madison’s food and beverage community has grappled with how to move forward. All the while, many have found creative ways to support fellow small business owners, furloughed service industry workers and essential health care workers. Here are just a few of those stories about people helping people.

The Server
In mid-March Nancy Sorensen was working at Nook, Osteria Papavero and Fairchild. “From three jobs to zero,” Sorensen says. While Fairchild and Papavero continued with carryout service, Sorensen’s position in the front of the house wasn’t needed at the restaurants. “I’m a nonessential employee for an essential business,” she says. Sorensen has worked as a server for 28 years and misses going to work. “Our jobs are so social,” she says. “It’s really difficult to not have that community. … I can’t Zoom a shift.”

Sorensen also faces the uncertainty of unemployment. “It’s pretty nerve-wracking,” she says. When the owners of Fairchild decided to offer free tacos for lunch for service industry workers in late March, one of the goals was to raise money for the restaurant’s employees. “They [split] it equally with everybody, so it’s mainly a nod — as opposed to something that is going to pay bills — but it still means a lot,” Sorensen says. “The morale thing is huge.”

Sorensen has also been the recipient of several tips from Madison’s virtual tip jar. Inspired by similar projects in other cities, Philip Crawford, a local software developer, set up a website where people could donate money to service industry workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s not a huge income but someone I didn’t know gave me $15,” Sorensen says. “That was so generous and makes you believe in the world again … just that little shoutout [says], ‘I see you.’ ”

The Brewery

Gift cards from One Barrel Brewing Co.

Photo by Peter Gentry

Peter Gentry, owner of One Barrel Brewing Co., says the pandemic has had a massive effect on his brewery. “We are seeing maybe 5% of our normal revenue right now,” he says. Gentry says he was worried for his employees when he had to lay them off, “I felt anything I could get them, I should get them.” Gentry decided to give 100% of gift card sales to his furloughed staff. “It allows us to get money in their hands now at a reasonable cost to the business later, when we can handle it,” Gentry says. “The response from customers has been wonderful.” As of late April, Gentry was able to send three checks to hourly staff members through gift card and tip funds.

The Instagrammer
Erin Bork started her Instagram account @608drinks more than a year and a half ago when she moved from Milwaukee to Madison. Bork used the account to explore her new home, documenting what she ate and drank along the way. Now Bork uses the account for a different purpose — to help feed Madison’s health care workers. Bork, who now works at Exact Sciences, used to work in some of Madison’s health care facilities, including St. Mary’s Hospital. When she found herself “stuck at home” in mid-March, Bork wanted to figure out a way to support both Madison’s food industry and the city’s health care workers. Originally Bork set up a Venmo account where people could donate money to buy meals from local businesses and have them delivered to people working in Madison’s hospitals and clinics. Since then she has promoted different GoFundMe pages set up by restaurants as opposed to her Venmo. Some of the restaurants she works with are Parthenon Gyros, Yola’s Cafe, SoHo Gourmet Cuisines and Ian’s Pizza. In addition to working full time, Bork spends 15 to 20 hours a week coordinating the donations and deliveries. The experience has helped her feel at home in Madison, which she sees now as a “tight-knit community.” “I’ve never been truly in love with Madison until this all happened,” Bork says.

The Tea Shop
Rachel and Anthony Verbrick, owners of Macha Tea Co., turned their initial disbelief into action. “Right after the stay-at-home order, a conversation started on Facebook that led to us forming a plan with a couple of other industry friends,” says Rachel Verbrick. “For Anthony and [me], the initial shock and stress of, ‘What now?’ just flipped into, ‘How can we help?’ ”

The answer for the Verbricks, of course, involved tea. “Caring for people through food and beverage is what we all do best,” says Rachel Verbrick. “So redirecting our energy into helping support the people who are facing the worst and most dangerous parts of this crisis seemed like a no-brainer.” Taking donations from friends, family and Macha supporters, the Verbricks began brewing tea and baking their signature treats, including chocolate zucchini muffins, to be delivered to health care workers. Friends of the Verbricks, who work in local hospitals and clinics, have helped to coordinate the care packages, which also include items like bone broth from Morris Ramen and self-care products from Zip-Dang. “It still feels like such a small thing, but it’s better than sitting around feeling helpless when you actually have the capacity to do something,” says Rachel Verbrick.

The Juice Company

Lime Aid juice

Photo courtesy of Saints Madison Juice Co.

Jo Um, owner of Saints Madison Juice Co., considered herself lucky that she didn’t experience a “huge shake-up” in the operational aspects of her company in March. “As far as logistics of taking orders, that transition was easier for us versus many other businesses,” Um says. “We are not exactly a restaurant or a juice bar. We are sort of a hybrid in a sense, where we are really retail and production.”

To keep produce at shuttered restaurants and bars from going to waste, Um purchased the food or took it as a donation. “We got oranges, lemons, limes,” Um says. “All of a sudden I had 14 pounds of ginger from Morris Ramen.” Calling the ginger limeade “This Citrus Just Got Real,” Um decided to send the proceeds to furloughed food industry employees. During this time Um also supported businesses by providing meals for her employees from locally owned restaurants doing carryout or delivery. “We want these restaurants to be open,” Um says. “I can’t imagine them not being there. It was an extremely emotional beginning — I felt helpless … but you can’t always feel that way. You’ve got to turn it into something positive. I’m super proud of being able to do something, even if it’s small.”

Erica Krug is a Madison-based writer.