May 5, 2020

Food Fight Series: No Us Without You

Food Fight Series: No Us Without You

On today's show we chat with Othon Nolasco, co-founder of No Us Without You, a non-profit serving the most vulnerable amongst us within the hospitality community.

There are some revelations in life that hit you like a ton of bricks. It was Othon that brought to light that there are thousands of undocumented hospitality workers that are unable to receive government assistance and thus are unable to feed their families. Most of us can empathize but few of us have the courage to act. Within days of the quarantine, Othon and team were feeding families throughout Los Angeles county. Here, Othon provides a window into the work they're doing and the people they're supporting.

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SHOW NOTES

  • Met partners Damien and Erin in 2012 and created Va’La Hospitality in 2018
  • Consultants specifically for bar services
  • Coping though Covid19
  • All projects were shutdown when crisis hit
  • Still figuring out the next steps for Va’La
  • Focus on the charity work
  • Being “unemployed” feels very odd since hospitality professionals are usually working constantly
  • The beginnings of No Us Without You
  • Predicted the lockdown and shutdown of bars would happen
  • Lots of GoFundMes were being made for FOH staff but not the most vulnerable
  • Started the initiative to feed 1 undocumented, unemployed family for 1 day.
  • Bought food from restaurant outlets and packaged it
  • The initiative grew to feed the family for 1 week
  • Candidates for the program
  • Families are of undocumented back of house staff who are now unemployed
  • Hard-working people struggling without work
  • Operations of No Us Without You
  • Food packages have a mix of produce, dried staples, and home-cooked meals
  • Food supply partners donate to subsidize food
  • Team still shops 3-4 times a week to buy food from wholesalers
  • Feeding 1 family = $33 per week
  • They feed 300 families a week
  • Future of No Us Without You
  • Non-profit, tax-exempt status
  • Aim to feed 600-700 families per week
  • The human aspect
  • Many children they see are very confused
  • How many families not aware of the program are going hungry?
  • How many children are going hungry?
  • Hunger in America during Covid
  • Due to restaurant closures, farmers are dumping milk and slaughtering animals as they cannot afford to keep them
  • Many families are going hungry with rising unemployment
  • Long-term implications
  • Unemployment could mean families are behind on rent
  • Families are typically working at least two jobs to pay bills in normal times
  • When the job market reopens, competition for work will be high
  • With accumulated debt, it will be a long time before they are financially stable again
  • Goal of providing food stability to as many families as possible, for as long as possible. Prediction 12-18months
  • Personal goals of Othon
  • Planning a wedding which was postponed
  • Improving on weaknesses
  • Learning more about how to run a non-profit
Transcript

Speaker 1:
Today's episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They're also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now, here we go.

Speaker 2:
The majority of our families, we know that we're going to be indebted to them to making sure that their food's secure for at least the next year, year and a half.

Josh Kopel:
Welcome to Full Comp, a show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators served up on the house.

Josh Kopel:
I'm Josh Kopel and on today's show, we chat with Othon Nolasco, the co-founder of No Us Without You, a non-profit serving the most vulnerable amongst us within the hospitality community.

Josh Kopel:
There are some revelations in life that hit you like a ton of bricks. It was Othon that brought to light that there are thousands of undocumented hospitality workers that are unable to receive government assistance and thus unable to feed their families. Most of us can empathize, but few of us have the courage to act. Within days of the quarantine, Othon and his team were feeding families throughout Los Angeles County. Here, we begin with Othon discussing his path to a life of service.

Othon Nolasco:
I think I've been a professional servant my whole life. We talked about that. My first job was a dishwasher and my buddy was smart, he used the dishwashers. They told him, basically, "Hey, find somebody to replace you and then you can become busboy." So, that's what he did and I was just happy to work in a restaurant, making tips and stuff. Dishwasher's not the easiest job in the world and I definitely respect everyone that still does that today. Have a soft spot in my heart for dishwashers, even though they are really hard to find and hold onto.

Othon Nolasco:
Kind of the same progression, I then became a busboy when my friend became a food runner and so on and so forth, until I became his bar back and bartended all through college. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I got back into hospitality because I wasn't having a very social existence. I was just working, working, working, working. Had my own company. Fell back in love with it. This was in 2012. Worked at a small little place in Skid Row in Los Angeles called Yxta. That's where I met one of my partners, Damien. Then, we went onto work at Everson Royce Bar and a few other places. At Everson Royce Bar, met our other partner, Aaron, who ended up working with us. Fast forward a few years later and we started a hospitality company a little over two years ago.

Othon Nolasco:
That's all going to change too because we don't even see how our roles as consultants will ever be what they were before. So, within our own existence we need to pivot and figure out how to make that work out, or else we're going to go out of business. Effectively, we are, because our two projects are shut down right now. One opened just before the shutdown, the week before, [Air Monito 00:03:31] in Little [Socca 00:03:33]. We're in the same boat as everyone else, no paycheck. Trying to figure out our way.

Josh Kopel:
I'm living that unemployment life myself.

Othon Nolasco:
Yeah, it's interesting... we talked about that before... when you're used to working all the time, how being unemployed is a very strange thing. It's our money. We paid into it this whole time. I don't feel bad about working for Uncle Sam.

Josh Kopel:
You were consulting just prior to the pandemic.

Othon Nolasco:
Yes.

Josh Kopel:
But you guys quickly pivoted into this new project.

Othon Nolasco:
Yeah. It goes back to what we were just talking about right now. We saw the shutdown coming before it was officially announced. It was just obvious that there was no way restaurants and bars were going to be able to be open if this pandemic was going to hit. Everything was going to have to close. It was just born out of frustration and really not knowing how to help the most vulnerable people that we worked with for years. We saw a lot of GoFundMe's being started for front of the house staff and bartenders and servers. We understood. Everyone's got to eat and that really bothered us because no one was mentioning at all, anyone down the line, anyone in the dish pit any of the prep or porters, and we didn't know how to help in the beginning. It was a few days we were just angry, frustrated people.

Othon Nolasco:
Actually, one of our friends, Mike Capoferri, owner of Thunderbolt, he quickly pivoted and started doing meals for out of work hospitality people. We had the idea of maybe we give Mike some money, our own money, and buy meals for back-of-the-house. But then, it's like how would I donate to you and your restaurant and then tell you how to spend it. It just didn't seem very appropriate to do that because he already had a program going on and we would be there, trying to rock his boat and change things.

Othon Nolasco:
So, we then decided, well, let's feed the people directly that need the help the most. We had friends that we worked with that were undocumented and also unemployed because of the shutdown, so we reached out to them. Then, a few other friends that were sous-chefs or floor managers and they asked some people in their crew who needed help. It quickly grew to where we had a dozen people, or families I should say, to feed that first day.

Othon Nolasco:
We just went to local restaurant supply company, bought several hundred dollars worth of food, and came back to our office and just started packing up in deli cups and weighing things out, measuring things, seeing what was appropriate to give someone. How could we make that 450 bucks... how many people could it feed? Originally, Aaron and I wanted to... my partner, Aaron Melendrez... we wanted to feed people just one time. Feed them and then we would figure it out.

Othon Nolasco:
Our other partner, Damien Diaz, actually had the really good idea that most people have a husband, have a wife, have a significant other, and then they have small children, so let's make this a family thing and let's feed a family for a week. Then, okay, what does that look like? How much does that cost? We just costed everything out and made it work to where we could spend $33 and feed a family of four for a week. We weighed everything out and we put them in bags. It looked right. It looked like an appropriate amount of food that could last a week.

Othon Nolasco:
The next day, we went and did the same thing. Then, we started Instagram for it. Aaron came up with the name, No Us Without You, which I thought was a beautifully, just right to the point, because there is no restaurant business without the back-of-the-house. Let's just be honest. There is none.

Josh Kopel:
I couldn't agree more.

Othon Nolasco:
A monkey could do my job and probably make more tips, because they're cuter. They could learn how to make drinks, which I'm sure you could teach a smart monkey how to make some cocktails. But I wouldn't want the monkey in the back touching my food.

Josh Kopel:
Right.

Othon Nolasco:
Right?

Josh Kopel:
Yeah, I see it.

Othon Nolasco:
We just started Instagram for it and built a page on our website that would quickly explain everything that we were doing and just treated it like a business. We applied for an LLC and filled out the paperwork for the 501(c)(3), the application to get that going. Expedited that so that we could be considered for tax exempt status and be a true non-profit. Just got updated with that. We should have that by the end of May. There is a little bit of delay right now with the shutdown as well. It's just a vetting process, so we'll have that in about a month.

Josh Kopel:
No Us Without You, the stated mission is to feed a family for a week. You guys can do it for $33?

Othon Nolasco:
Yeah, and actually, we can and now that we're buying more food and buying direct instead of just buying from a wholesale company that's open to the public, buying direct and not paying taxes and stuff, now getting that resale license, we're able to... and also because of donations because there's some really good partners donating food. Each kit that we're giving a family is about 70 pounds, with the Secret Lasagna donation. Every lasagna they sell as an entrée or casserole they sell, they're donating one to our families. A few pasta, flour, egg, water for all. They're donating 75 quarts a week to us. We're buying pasta sauce from them. We're buying garlic bread from Secret Lasagna. We're supplementing this basic dried goods and staple pantry items to include some pre-cooked meals, to include a lot more produce, a lot more fruits and vegetables, courtesy of our good family friends [Alias 00:09:57] Produce.

Othon Nolasco:
Talk about a pivot, the son runs a company. He's my youngest brother's age, so he's like a 30 year-old kid. He saw 95% of his business get just taken away with restaurants closing, so instead of just bitching and moaning, he pivoted and what he did was obviously a family's not going to buy a case of bananas, but they would buy a smaller box that is maybe a tropical kit where it has mangoes and bananas and different fruits, or a citrus box, or a greens box. No one wants to go out and get that stuff, so he's delivering it all over Southern California. He's actually convinced people to buy one for themselves and then donate one to us. I love them for that. We're just able to supplement this very basic, very salts of the earth food relief kit for a family, and give them some added nutrients and vitamins and fresh produce and home-cooked meals.

Josh Kopel:
What does a typical day look like for you?

Othon Nolasco:
My partners and I have kept our same lanes with this. We're all better at certain things than the others and we can help each other out if we just focus on what we're good at. For myself, I'm lucky I live three minutes away from my office where I'm at right now. I live around the corner in Boyle Heights. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, we get tortilla deliveries from Kernel of Truth Organic Tortillas in Boyle Heights. I'm here at 7:00AM to get that delivery because we're the first stop because we're the closest to their tortaria. We get that delivery and then get everything setup.

Othon Nolasco:
We do have to go shopping a lot. This is the first week that we actually have getting deliveries to our office. That means going to the restaurant supply company on our non-delivery days, which are delivery days are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, where we're feeding about a little over 100 families each of those days. It means going shopping because I have a smaller pick-up truck. I don't have a big, giant truck, so I need to go shopping three to four times to feed 100 families, just logistically to fit that much food in my truck.

Othon Nolasco:
This morning, I just went and picked up 1200 pounds of beans, 1200 pounds of rice, 1200 pounds of potatoes, 800 pounds of carrots. I could go on and on and on, but it's a big amount of food. We've added refrigeration. Our office looks like a food pantry. It just wall to wall stainless steel prep tables and food storage. That's it. And new refrigeration... well, new to us. They're all used.

Josh Kopel:
How many people are you guys feeding a week? Then, what is the goal? How many do you want to feed a week?

Othon Nolasco:
We're feeding over 300 families. Each family has two to sometimes six people. We are feeding 300 families a week right now. We're trying to add as many as we can every week. We want to be able to feed as many people as we can. This is going to be week eight we're looking at coming up, so that's almost two months of no income for a lot of our families. These are people that are used to working two to three jobs. These aren't people looking for a handout. These aren't people that are used to any type of assistance. They're used to just working really hard, maybe taking one day off a week. I think that just the way logistically we've set everything up and try to scale, we should be good, just the three of us, plus our one assistant that's helping us out, up to about 700 families. I think, after that, we're going to be maxed out of space because there's only seven days in a week.

Othon Nolasco:
But yeah, I think we can service 600 families a week. I don't want to say easily, but very efficiently, just the systems we have in place here.

Josh Kopel:
Then, I'd also like to take this opportunity to put a human face on it because you're not helping people generally, you're helping specific people, right?

Othon Nolasco:
Yes.

Josh Kopel:
With specific needs and specific families. Are there any stories that jump out over the course of the last eight weeks that you'd like to share?

Othon Nolasco:
Yeah, definitely. I didn't grow up rich, but I certainly didn't grow up poor. I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. For me, personally, the hardest part of this past eight weeks is just seeing little kids confused. We all think about being a little kid and going to the grocery store with your mom or dad. Now, you have six, seven, eight year-olds going to a parking lot, picking up food from these couple of guys in a truck. It's really shitty seeing little kids get excited about a fucking bag of popcorn or bananas.

Othon Nolasco:
It hurts because I know that the 300 families we're feeding, how many more families just aren't able to get a hold of us or don't know about us yet and those little kids just don't have the amount of food in their home all day. Their parents got to see them and got to answer where's the food. I'm hungry, mom. I'm hungry, dad. We're going to eat this again? It's a really fucked up story, man, because as we all know, dairy farmers are dumping milk out of holding tanks and foods rotting in the fields because farmers can't afford to pick it because there's no restaurants opening and they're slaughtering baby chickens and piglets because they can't afford to feed them. I just don't understand how America, anyone should be hungry. We're the richest country in the world and food security is a thing.

Josh Kopel:
Well, and you're central movement helping people get fed. What do you envision is the future for the organization? Is this something you think you could potentially pivot to full-time? If so, post-pandemic, what would it look like?

Othon Nolasco:
My partners and I have talked about that at great lengths because we really don't see this as something as a short-term project. My partner, Damien, speaks to every single family personally. His email box and his text messages are crazy. It's all he does is glued to that phone all day. He has this amazing bedside manner, if you will. He is not only speaking to everyone to gain their trust, because if we have new families, they don't know that this is a thing. They don't know if this is a setup. They're going to get pinched by ICE or something like that. They don't know us.

Othon Nolasco:
So, he's able to engrain himself with them and get them to trust him, but what he's very good at is preserving people's dignity. Like I said, these are hard-working class of people that are not used to handouts, so we're definitely not handing them anything. We call them our clients or our families. They are very much that. Preserving their pride and dignity is important to us and we tell them every week, especially when it's their first week getting food from us, that we're in it for the long haul, that we're going to see them through not only the short-term end of the pandemic, whenever a vaccine comes out and everyone's able to get inoculated. But also, realistically, Josh, if it's a family of four, your rent's $1500, 1600 bucks a month and you're not paying that for four, five, six months and it's taking you working two or three jobs to pay that rent and maybe sending a little bit extra you have back home to Central America or Mexico, I don't think there's going to be two or three jobs for everyone after, right?

Josh Kopel:
Absolutely. I couldn't agree with you more.

Othon Nolasco:
So, how does a dishwasher, how does a prep cook dig out of this huge whole of debt that they just have to pay a landlord to get square after not paying rent for four, five, six months? I think that if we can at least provide food security and help out in that way indefinitely, until people tell us, "We're good. We don't need this help anymore. We'd rather you take us off the list for the program and give it to someone else. Give that spot to someone else that needs it." We've actually already had a few families say, "Hey..." a very small amount... but like, "Hey, I got a job doing some other type of work with a family friend, so we're good. I'd rather give this to someone else." But the majority of our families, we know that we're going to be indebted to them to making sure that they're food secure for at least the next year, year and a half.

Josh Kopel:
What do you envision is the future for you, Othon, as a person? You had this vision for your life as a restaurant consultant, a builder, somebody that's building concepts for other people. Has the pandemic changed that? Has it pivoted your goals, your focus? What does your focus look like, personally?

Othon Nolasco:
I've spoken with that at lengths to my partners and my fiance. We were planning a wedding, so that's on hold. A part of me kind of wanted to go back to school, but then I don't want debt and I like working too much. So, I really see that this running a non-profit is what I'm finding joy in. It still allows me to be a professional servant. My partners and I had actually talked about starting a non-profit for the past year. Just didn't have the clearest of visions of how to do that, both from a financial aspect and as a fundraising aspect, so we decided let's figure it out before we do it so that we get one chance to do it right.

Othon Nolasco:
For myself, I really see the near future as just helping run this non-profit and growing it. I know I'm going to have to learn how to write grants and all these things that I've never done before. My partners and I have always spoken about we need to get really good at the things that we're not great at. Until the day one of us decides not to follow that program, then we'll be together, trying to learn how to get better at all these things that we need to learn how to do.

Josh Kopel:
Then, if somebody wanted to donate to No Us Without You, how would they go about doing so?

Othon Nolasco:
They can go right to our Instagram and see everything, the timeline, the progression, the last eight weeks, and see what's going on. The handle's going to be @nouswithoutyou and there is a link in that bio that goes straight to our website. It's a beautiful link. Has all the press, all the frequently asked questions. People can also contact us. They can also refer a family. A family can apply to be part of our program right at that site. It's like a one stop shop. So, No Us Without You at Instagram and we'll get everything taken care of.

Josh Kopel:
That's phenomenal. Any last thoughts? You have the opportunity to speak directly to the entire industry.

Othon Nolasco:
I just hope that the level of intelligence that we have in this industry is used for good. I hope that we take the opportunity to not make this about us, to resist that urge to make this about what am I going to do, and stop worrying about ourselves a little bit, and as a whole, maybe worry about each other a little bit more. I think that'll weed out a lot of the people that honestly don't belong in a life of service. You and I talked about that. That would be my hope, that if you went into a restaurant eight, nine, 10 months from now, or a bar, the person serving you would be someone that had a professional servants mindset and it wasn't just doing it to pay the bills.

Josh Kopel:
That's Othon Nolasco, co-founder of No Us Without You. For more information on their charity or to donate, visit them on Instagram. Search No Us Without You.

Josh Kopel:
If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to joshkopel.com. That's J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L.com. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. While you're there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I'm Josh Kopel. You've been listening to Full Comp.