Waitress Displaced by Coronavirus Finds New Place to Serve: A Food Pantry
By Te-Ping Chen
As a waitress, Rosa Mendoza was used to working long shifts and serving salt-rimmed margaritas and aged mole sauce at José, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Dallas.
Then the new coronavirus pandemic hit, closing the restaurant. Rather than sit home, Ms. Mendoza has turned her attention to the homeless.
These days, Ms. Mendoza gets in her car and makes an early morning drive to OurCalling, a local food pantry. Upon arriving, she and other workers are checked for fevers at the door with a forehead thermometer. Once cleared, they put on gloves and masks, and get to work preparing meals.
At José, Ms. Mendoza, 26 years old, earned at least $1,000 a week, mainly from tips. She’s now earning about a third of that—but takes home an extra dose of satisfaction for the help she provides.
Her waitressing job required working 10-hour shifts on weekdays, and longer ones on the weekends. She loved joking with customers, including regulars who often tipped as much as 30%.
As coronavirus cases rippled across the globe in recent months, she remembers watching YouTube videos about what was going on. “I tried to be informed,” she said, “but since it wasn’t happening here, it wasn’t affecting my daily life.”
On March 16, that changed. Management at José told her and around 50 co-workers about its decision to temporarily close. Dallas would issue a shelter-in-place order soon after.
Almost overnight, Ms. Mendoza’s world was transformed. Work, the gym, and regular visits with her parents were ruled out. She grew depressed, she said. She had spent the past decade in the restaurant business, starting as a hostess at age 16, and now work all around her had dried up with no clear end in sight.
OurCalling, an outreach center that in normal times provides a range of services to the homeless, was also struggling. Volunteer ranks shrank, and food donations from big-box stores disappeared as panicked shoppers emptied shelves.
Ms. Mendoza and other wait staff were contacted by one of José’s restaurant managers who wanted to let them know about a new nonprofit initiative, Get Shift Done. It placed hundreds of idle hospitality workers at local food banks and pantries—and it connected Ms. Mendoza to OurCalling.
By the time she arrived, OurCalling was making do with donations from now-closed restaurants. The organization’s founder, Wayne Walker, said each day has become an episode reminiscent of the reality TV show Chopped, in which chefs scramble to make do with unlikely surprise ingredients.
Ms. Mendoza is working five days a week at the pantry and expects to make around $325 a week, helping prepare its daily meal. She said her wages—which are paid by Get Shift Done—are enough to cover her rent, and that her savings should cover other expenses for another six months.
In some ways, she said, the coronavirus crisis has made her feel lucky. By the time she arrives at 7:45 in the morning at OurCalling, there are already numerous people lined up waiting for their lunch meal, she said. For many of the 400-odd who are served, it’s the only meal they will get all day.
“We always had food at home; I never really saw this part of life,” said Ms. Mendoza, whose father works in construction and mother is a kitchen manager in nearby Fort Worth. “Maybe I was unaware—I lived a busy life, worked long shifts.” She rarely looked at the news before, she said, but now she checks it five times a day.
Ms. Mendoza and her OurCalling co-workers bake marble cake and mix butter lettuce salads, dish up cauliflower rice and muse over what to do with frozen chicken legs. Around half a dozen of them are like herself, laid off from restaurants, and are now being paid $10 an hour for their work by Get Shift Done.
“It’s kind of nice. You get to meet other people who are going through the same thing,” she said.
Ms. Mendoza, who earned an associate’s degree in business, said someday she might like to open her own restaurant. But even once the economy recovers, she plans to keep volunteering in her community. If nothing else, she said, the coronavirus has made her realize how good it can feel to help others. “I never discovered this side of myself before,” she said.
“I feel fortunate to be out on the streets,” she added. “I feel I have a major task. I’m considered an essential employee now.”