The town of Malta and a local restaurant have teamed up to collect private donations and offer free meals to those who need them, in a new initiative they hope to keep going as long as donations continue coming in.
In just three weeks, more than $3,000 has been collected through a donation portal on the homepage of the town’s maltaworks.org website, enough for Nanola restaurant on Route 9 to provide 50 meals sufficient for four people on Dec. 22, and another 40 meals last Tuesday. The next giveaway will be on Wednesday, Jan. 6.
So far, word of the food’s availability has spread only through social media — but word is getting around, with some of the meals being picked up last week for distribution to home-bound senior citizens. People are given the meals in a drive-thru setting outside the restaurant.
“We’re giving them away to people who come first-served, no questions asked,” said Town Councilman Tim Dunn. “There’s no public dollars involved here, but we have people coming with tears in their eyes. Both the restaurant and the public benefit.”
The economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have hit some people hard even in affluent communities like Malta, with job losses and business cutbacks, while barely effecting others. At the same time, restrictions intended to control the spread of COVID-19 have devastated the restaurant industry.
There have been a number of small and temporary efforts to get restaurant food to people in need, as well as the many food pantry distribution events that have sometimes attracted hundreds of cars.
The uneven impact of the pandemic on the economy means some people want to donate to support their neighbors and local restaurants, and can afford to do so, Dunn said. People receiving meals aren’t required to be Malta residents.
The way it works is that people using the “Give to Dine” portal can donate in increments of $25, with each $25 donation enough to support the restaurant in providing a meal for four people. The first week, Nanola provided roast beef, potatoes and a vegetable, the second week, chicken and rice.
“I’m not making a ton of money, but it keeps my staff working, and its feeding people who need it,” said Shane Spillenger, chef-owner at Nanola, a New Orleans-themed restaurant that has been open for seven years. The restaurant employs 12 people, about half the staff it had before the pandemic.
Spillenger, whose parents owned the Bayou Cafe in Glenville for many years, said the ups and downs of the restaurant industry “have always been a roller-coaster ride,” but the current situation, with government restricting seating capacity to 50 percent, is one of the worst he can recall.
When indoor dining was prohibited in March, NaNola initially closed, but it reopened in May, and for awhile was doing takeout barbecue. People were asked to pay what they could afford. Some people made a generous donation, while some couldn’t afford to pay anything. “It kind of evened out,” Spillenger said, and showed him that some people were generous even during hard times.
That experience planted the idea that has now come to fruition. Dunn, meanwhile, had noted how the Broadway Deli in Saratoga Springs was giving away free roasted chickens starting around Thanksgiving, and how community members spontaneously donated to help the business buy more chickens.
“I thought, let’s have a way for someone here in Malta to buy a meal for a family that needs it,” Dunn said.
Then a noise complaint to the town about outdoor music at the restaurant brought the two men together. Yes, the music had to stop, but the two talked and continued to work together.
“Tim already had some of the blueprint in place,” Spillenger said. “We’re really hoping we can keep this thing going.”
“Shane’s the one doing all the hard work here,” Dunn said. “We’re fortunate to have him.”
The donations to “Give to Dine” are being funneled through a foundation operated by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and are tax-deductible.
With municipalities looking to support their local businesses but generally unable to collect and distribute private donations, Chamber President Todd Shimkus said the foundation has offered an avenue for channeling money to support struggling businesses. By using the foundation, Shimkus said 100 percent of the donation will go to the intended cause.
“In another year the foundation might do a few thousand dollars, but this year close to $100,000 has gone through the foundation, with all these little things that helped local people and organizations,” he said.
“What I love about it is that the people benefit, and the restaurant also benefits,” Shimkus said.
Dunn said the town would like to keep the effort going as long as donations keep coming in, and expand it so that other independently owned restaurants participate.
Spillenger agrees. “I would love for this to become so big that all the other restaurants can participate,” he said.
To balance the meal supply and demand, starting this week, people who want to pick up a meal are being asked to reserve a meal by calling the Chamber of Commerce office at 518-584-3255. Donations continue to be accepted at maltaworks.org.