In Houston’s Chinatown, restaurants plan to feed front-line workers during the pandemic

Restaurant owners aim to give 10,000 meals to frontline workers

Debbie Chen, co-owner of Houston's Shabu House, and Nguyen T. Nguyen, a local artist and photographer, hold sourdough bread and cookies. Chen is helping organize an effort to use donations to feed front-line workers during the pandemic. (Texas Tribune)

HOUSTON – As Debbie Chen sees it, being one of Texas’ first responders or essential workers is no picnic.

Tending to the state’s most vulnerable populations and working long hours as essential employees is taxing on its own; figuring out when you’re going to fit in meals on top of that is a whole other challenge.

To help, Chen, a co-owner of Shabu House in Houston, and several other Asian American community leaders in the state’s most diverse city have devised a plan.

The goal: Collect $100,000 to divvy between (hopefully) 20 restaurants — including Shabu House — in Houston’s Chinatown. The money will all go toward buying food and packaging to make meal boxes for the people who are keeping Houston running while most people stay home. They’ve already raised close to $60,000 so far.

Each $10 meal will be paid for by donors and, with the help of volunteers, get distributed to firefighters, nurses, grocery store workers and doctors working on the front lines.

Chen has already planned the meals Shabu House can provide. Rice with coconut curry chicken. A vegan option with tofu instead of chicken. Popcorn chicken. Or, a fourth meal with their signature pickled cabbage and bulgogi beef rice dish.

Already four restaurants have agreed to participate. Chen, 49, said another colleague working with her on the project is in contact with at least nine others. She hopes the mission can be fully up and running by the first week of May, with the end goal of distributing 10,000 meals.

“This helps first responders know that people care about them and appreciate what they’re doing,” Chen said. “I also think it will take away from stress because I can’t imagine them having the time and bandwidth to go get groceries at the store.

“We’re supporting Asian restaurants and supporting first responders at the same time,” she added.

Initially, the community group Chen works with wanted to organize an Asian Restaurant Week to help bring money to restaurants in the city’s Chinatown. Then the coronavirus hit. And a seed was planted for the initiative underway now: one that can help not only Asian restaurants but help first responders, too.

“Hopefully this will save [first responders] from the stress of having to buy food and cook it,” she said. “Especially when they could be using that time to shower or unwind or do something else.

“We know this is a small thing, but we hope it will help,” she added. “Every little piece helps.”