SCHENECTADY -- Amid government-mandated business shutdowns, private sector layoffs and stay-at-home directives from New York state due to the spread of the COVID-19, a free smoked barbecue dinner can be a comforting thing.
Or that was the thinking when Van Vranken Avenue restaurant The Memphis King decided to team up with William Rivas and his inner-city nonprofit "Save Our Streets" on Wednesday to give away 100 meals. Each dinner consisted of 10 pieces of chicken, legs and thighs, four baked potatoes, and a pound of carrots.
It was a hit and they did it again Saturday, and will do it a third time on Tuesday.
"We worked together with William Rivas, the two of us," said Brandon Canton, who owns The Memphis King in partnership with family members. "He was doing pizza that day and we covered the other half, but since then we've been getting a lot of other donors."
Since the first meal giveaway, Canton said, he has received additional donations from individuals and from the campaign fundraising committee of Omar McGill, who lost in his bid for county Legislature in November.
He said that with the additional funds he was able to give away another 100 meals on Saturday, and he's set to do it again on Tuesday.
The Memphis King giveaways have operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, with meals being reserved by calling the company's phone number.
Brandon said that so far the free meal deals have cost about $800, with half of that donated by his business. He said it was important to try to help the community and his customers given the tough economic conditions.
"I have more to offer than other people," he said. "I have a bigger oven. I have a bigger stove, a walk-in cooler, a lot of people don't have this stuff at home to make cheap meals for people. I can order in bulk. I get restaurant supply discounts. I want to give back. My dad raised me to be a kind man. Hungry people need to eat."
Businesses also need money to stay open. Brandon said about 75 percent of his approximately $400,000 in annual revenue comes from takeout and delivery. He said he should be able to remain in business even though he may lose 25 percent of his revenue from sit-down dinner and possibly more from some takeout customers. He said he's going to shut down everything but delivery after 8 p.m. Sunday night.
"This is my house, so I live here — I smoke the meat out back and sell it out the front door — for me to shut down would be kind of hard," he said.
The Memphis King opened six years ago when Brandon's father, Robert Canton, agreed to help back his son's venture. Robert said he spent nearly 10 years working on a contract to replace gymnasium floors destroyed by tornadoes in Memphis, where he gained appreciation for Elvis Presley's adopted home town and learned the fine art of Southern smoke-cooked barbecue. That's where the name of the business comes from, in honor of Presley's nickname as the King of Rock 'n' Roll.
"I told him I'd support anything that wasn't pizza," Robert Canton said.
Brandon said the business started with less than $100,000 in annual sales, but gradually grew to about $400,000 in yearly revenue.
Robert helps at the store with the cash register, and he took the calls as soon as the restaurant put up the giveaway offer on its Facebook page.
"The phone didn't stop ringing after that," he said.
The Memphis King's regular customers have also stayed loyal during the virus crisis.
Mike Hazard, a former Schenectady resident who now lives in Burnt Hills and helps to run an industrial park in Clifton Park, said he saw the giveaway offer on Facebook, but realized it was geared toward the needy.
"I'm a regular paying customer, not as often since I moved," he said.
Hazard said he's also expected to keep his job and show up on Monday, because he needs to be there to handle its finances, even though some of the businesses in the park have shut down.
"I'm the only person going in," he said.
Kenoye Eke, a stockade resident who works as an engineer at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, said he's been ordered to work from home, mostly. He said he can't do all of his job at home because it involves a government contract, some of which involves secret information that can't be safely delivered to a person's residence. He said his company is still figuring out how it will handle all of the aspects of Cuomo's mandate for businesses to keep as many employees at home as possible.
"It's tough," he said.
Keith Stanford, a Philadelphia resident, was at The Memphis King Saturday in his capacity as an internet app contract deliverer. He said he was in Schenectady visiting family and he decided to take a few delivery jobs. He said he works for mobile food delivery apps like Mealeo and Grubhub, although never at the same day because the apps prohibit doubling up. He was wearing plastic over his hands Saturday.
"I'm worried," he said. "Initially, I was ignorant to it, as far as not being self aware, but now that the state's been quarantined, I'm taking precautions. I'm not, like, scared, but I want to protect myself, and it's not about me. I look at it just like driving a car. It's not about me. It's about everyone around me."