From Where We Are

Feeding the frontline: How Los Angeles restaurants are supporting health workers

Local businesses, such as TOPO by KitchenMouse and Bibi’s Bakery, are teaming up with their communities in a time of crisis.

Eight scrubs shirt-shaped cookies with "Thank You" written in icing

When the pandemic began, Barbara Livolsi didn’t want to sit idly by. She wanted to help, especially since one of her friends is a nurse at Keck Medical at USC. But with orders to stay home, what could she do?

“When stuff like this happens, it’s just, you know, I don’t know, I guess you’d go to the place of like, ‘Alright, what can I do from my position, you know, of where I am in my life?’” Livolsi said.

Livolsi, who is a mother of three, met her friend who works for Keck Medical at their children’s preschool. Livolsi decided to turn to her community to find a way to help. At first, she tried to collect masks for the hospitals, but the campaign was limited.

“As you can imagine, was sort of slim pickings. We came up with like 25 masks,” Livolsi said. "But then I thought, ‘What else could we do to help her?’”

Meanwhile, Erica Daking, the owner of TOPO by KitchenMouse in Northeast Los Angeles, was forced to make tough business decisions in the face of the pandemic. Because business slowed down dramatically, she had to furlough much of her staff.

Within a few weeks, TOPO went from 72 employees to 8.

“We didn’t let anyone go in the hopes that, when this is all over, we can return to business as usual with the understanding that might take quite a while," Daking said. “We’re just sort of settling into this new normal, although it feels like it’s changing hour by hour, day by day. And we don’t really know what’s around the corner.”

That’s when Livolsi realized she could help two friends with one fundraiser. On March 25, she started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for meals to feed healthcare workers at Keck Medical. According to the GoFundMe page, all of the money raised will go toward helping to feed hospital staff while also supporting TOPO by KitchenMouse.

The goal is set for $25,000. A little over two weeks into the campaign, more than 100 people have donated more than $9,000. As of April 6th, the funds will also be used to support teams at the UCLA Medical Center.

The money has been enough for Daking and her team to start feeding the staff at Keck Medical. And for Daking, the experience opened her eyes to how dire the situation is for medical workers.

“These staffers are working super long shifts and getting very short breaks to eat, and in that time...they don’t have access to meals in a quick, easy way. That really made us realize that the need is there in a deeper way," Daking said.

That’s why restaurants all over the Los Angeles area — from local businesses like KitchenMouse to larger chains like The Habit — have been working to provide free meals for these hospital workers. At Bibi’s Bakery, a Kosher bakery on Pico Boulevard, owner Dan Messinger teamed up with Darren Melamed of Pizza World to deliver cookies and pizza to local emergency rooms. For every two pizzas or boxes of cookies that a customer sponsored, Messinger and Melamed would match it with their own donations.

Messinger even created a special cookie to show his gratitude for health workers: a scrubs shirt-shaped cookie with a stethoscope and “Thank You!” iced on top.

“It really is just the gesture,” Messinger said. “I think it can probably get lonely. Even though [the health workers are] all together, they feel like they’re on their island doing the work. And for them to know that there are people on the outside who are appreciating them, I think goes a long way.”

Messinger also hopes the enthusiasm for these types of projects won’t be temporary.

“In a couple of weeks, if this is just the norm, where we’re all just used to being at home and doing everything by Zoom and ordering in and all that, maybe we’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess the doctors are working hard,’” Messinger said. “If we have things like this, we can constantly remind everyone that they’re working beyond the norm, and then we can show them that we appreciate that and that we are supporting them.”

That concern is on Livolsi’s mind too as her GoFundMe continues to raise money. She hopes that people will continue to find local businesses to support beyond the pandemic.

“Whether it’s somebody making masks or maybe a neighbor who’s making masks and selling them for five bucks, support her. Support the local restaurant that you love going to. Everybody needs it," Livolsi said.