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Restaurants transformed into coronavirus food banks

How the coronavirus pandemic inspired these chefs to feed medical workers, communities in need

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When New York mandated restaurants close their dining rooms last month during the coronavirus pandemic, Harlem chef JJ Johnson didn't know if he could sustain his business on delivery only.

Chef JJ Johnson (R), the owner of FieldTrip restaurant in Harlem, is serving hundreds of meals to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus. (Fabiano Silva/Getty Images).

Now, FieldTrip, his fast-casual eatery that serves up rice bowls with crispy chicken and barbecue brisket for under $12, is running on serving meals to health care workers at hospitals funded by donations from Americans from around the country.

"My wife's a nurse and we thought, 'what could we do to help?'" Johnson told FOX Business.

Johnson sent 40 bowls to Harlem Hospital last month, and tweeted a promise to his fans: "Each day will pick a hospital close by @fieldtripharlem to help out."

"I got a phone call from someone in Maryland saying we want to give you $200 in meals," Johnson said. "People were tweeting back, 'I'll match you.'"

Johnson, who had 10 employees before the dining room was forced to shutter, has been able to hire back half of his staff. Together, they've churned out 1,300 meals since March 24 in New York City, an epicenter for the coronavirus where more than 100,000 people have tested positive for the deadly virus.

"It became this real movement. If people are sitting at home, and they really want to feed people, this could really keep my restaurant open."

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Johnson is one of many chefs around the country repurposing their restaurants to feed health care workers and others in need.

"It became this real movement. If people are sitting at home, and they really want to feed people, this could really keep my restaurant open."

- Chef JJ Johnson, owner of FieldTrip restaurant in Harlem

Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park reopened its doors on Thursday in New York City to serve as a commissary kitchen for Rethink, a nonprofit organization that collects excess food from restaurants and grocery stores to make free or affordable meals for people in need. The organization has served thousands of meals to hospital workers and the elderly among many others.

Similarly, Greg Baxtrom, a chef and owner of restaurants Olmsted and Maison Yaki in Brooklyn, had to lay off his entire 60-person staff as a result of COVID-19. Now, he partnered with Washington D.C.-based chef Edward Lee's food bank initiative to temporarily turn restaurants into food banks across cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Houston and Seattle packing hundreds of to-go meals available for pickup.

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"No one could have seen this coming, but here we are," Baxtrom wrote in an op/ed for Thrillist about how he transformed his restaurants into food banks. His goal is to feed almost 300 people a day.

"We have to do what we can to protect everyone else and what we're doing this week is only the beginning," he wrote.

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