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Volunteers used freshly baked bolillos to make sandwiches at the Midtown Kitchen Collective.

Image: Alice Levitt

Last week, a man arrived from Cincinnati with goods to donate to the Midtown Kitchen Collective, a commissary kitchen on Fannin Street in Midtown. Then he stayed and made sandwiches. A horse trailer arrived from Austin, filled with $4,000 worth of supplies donated by restaurant industry folks from the capital. As Houstonia walked in, a little girl pulled cases of mayonnaise (part a pallet that had been donated) into the building in a little red wagon. An hour later, New York Times domestic correspondent Kim Severson toured the facility. 

By that time, volunteers had churned out more than 200,000 sandwiches, made mostly using bread donated by El Bolillo and Slow Dough bakeries. According to Jonathan Beitler of Barrelhouse Media, one of the dedicated industry pros who have donated countless hours (they say they're now down to 12- or 14-hour days), one day early on, the crew of volunteers made 1,865 sandwiches in a single hour. Donations continue to flow in: farmers markets, food distributors and grocery stores all send produce, meats and dry goods in bulk. 

But for the best possible reasons, it was all bound to end someday. "This is not designed for long-term," admitted Cat Nguyen of wine distributor Republic National Distributing Company. The group assembled a Google Doc, entitled "Disaster Plan for Restaurant Communities"  in both English and Spanish and shared it with Floridian counterparts before Irma hit. It details pre-disaster planning, mass feeding production and which supplies to stock, but the living document doesn't have any passages about wrapping up activity. The crew had to play it by ear when they passed the baton on Sunday to charity Second Servings, which rescues prepared food from restaurants and events. "We have transitioned over all of our contacts to them so that they can continue servicing those in need," says Beitler.

What does that mean? The grocery store that Nguyen worked 12- to 14-hour days to keep stocked is gone. The kitchen, led by chef Richard Knight, most recently of Hunky Dory, no longer puts out the 5,000 to 6,000 hot meals each day that it did for the last two weeks. Now, those meals are being prepared exclusively by restaurant partners in their own kitchen, coordinated by Second Servings. 

And those donations don't just benefit those in need. Companies that contribute do so in order to give work to hourly employees so they can continue to earn a living in the wake of disaster. "We partner with El Bolillo and La Reyna," said Nguyen. "They’re asking me how long I want to [continue getting deliveries] next week and I say, 'I don’t know.'" But the rest is well-earned.

Rest, however, is relative. Most are simply returning to work. Some, like Nguyen, used their vacation days to labor at the collective. Others, like Chase Dykes, general manager at Christian's Tailgate Downtown, volunteered while also working full-time in the evenings. But for those looking for good postdiluvian signs, the end of this grand effort, is especially notable.

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