Jacksonville restaurants use kitchens, donated food to cook for seniors

Bellwether, Orsay, Black Sheep cooking for Feeding Northeast Florida

Chef Kerri Rogers, Chef Rebecca Reed and others pictured at Bellwether.
Chef Kerri Rogers, Chef Rebecca Reed and others pictured at Bellwether. (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A trio of Jacksonville restaurants is making the most of the current situation, using staff and kitchens to make meals for senior citizens and those in need.

Black Sheep Restaurant Group has partnered with Feeding Northeast Florida to make donated food into deliverable meals.

It’s also keeping some employees on the job, as many in the service industry are out of work.

Thursday, chefs and cooks were at Bellwether’s downtown kitchen turning leftovers into lifelines. They had just received a new shipment of donated food from a Feeding Northeast Florida truck.

“We’re putting love into the food,” said Kerri Rogers, Bellwether’s executive chef. “We’re not just sending out any food.”

Rogers and her team, no longer having a dining room to serve, are now hitting the kitchen to cook with the donated items. Much of the food came from canceled events like The Players, closed theme parks like Disney World and grocery store excess.

Similar to a “Chopped” TV competition, the culinary artists then create recipes and meals based on what they’ve been given, proving that when life gives you lemons, you can still make lemonade.

The food is then packaged and given back to Feeding Northeast Florida, which delivers them to seniors and people in need.

Rogers estimated her team has already sent 900 complete meals out, hoping to increase production in the coming weeks.

“It’s actually a lot of fun,” Rogers added with a smile.

“We have people that need jobs that are great at preparing food and then we also have hungry people that aren’t able to get out and come to a restaurant like they were before,” said Rebecca Reed, the executive pastry chef for Black Sheep Restaurant Group. “So we’re just trying to do it we can to bridge that gap.”

It is still a limited operation: two shifts of six workers at Bellwether. Funds from Feeding Northeast Florida and a private donor pay for the staff to prepare the prepackaged meals.

Orsay in Avondale, and Black Sheep in Riverside are relying on carryout orders to stay afloat. However, times are tough and sales are significantly less than they had hoped for. Reed said between the three restaurants, about 140 people were laid off.

“A lot of people have families and this is a hard time for them,” Reed noted.

So the company is sending them home with meals and groceries: eggs, milk, bread and peanut butter. The restaurant workers who are still on the job are also preparing family meals for their former coworkers who don’t have income coming in.

Reed said a GoFundMe account has been set up to raise money for them. Reed raised more than $8,000 in a week. She also said the tips given to staffers at the restaurants for to-go orders are being split among those without jobs.

Community assistance is key throughout the struggling food and beverage industry. Fred Miller Group realtor Tom Sandlin visited Orsay and other businesses Thursday buying gift cards to keep the cash flow moving.

“There’s a lot of people affected with restaurants and retail shops shutting down,” Sandlin said.

There’s no telling on when the crisis will end and restaurants can begin to return to normal. And despite the dark clouds, workers said they know the difficult times will pass.

In the meantime, managers hope residents continue to support local businesses by ordering takeout and buying gift cards.

“Getting our doors back open and guests in our dining room is what we are so ready to do,” Reed said.

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