It's a Friday afternoon, and Christine Silver is at Humboldt Soup Co. on Myrtle Avenue in Eureka getting a pot — a very big pot — of soup ready. But this one, a hot 50-liters of chicken noodle soup, isn't going to her drive-through customers. Instead, it's headed down the street to the Silvercrest Residence, a low-income senior living facility run by the Salvation Army.
At Silvercrest, Silver will meet up with the Salvation Army's Loretta Scott, as she does two to three times a week, and ladle it out for the 154 residents, free of charge. Then Scott will put on a mask and gloves to bring it to the seniors in their apartments. Since they are vulnerable people sheltering in place, for some it will be the only face-to-face interaction of the day.
"I started preparing for this in mid February," says Silver over the phone. She says she was an early adopter of masks and ramped-up sanitizing for her staff and stocked up on supplies, including storable food, in anticipation of supply chain issues.
"I figured I've got a drive-through so I'll probably be the last guy they shut down." And in fact, Humboldt Soup Co., which Silver owns along with Sixth & E and Delish on 5th, was easier to adapt to shelter in place than a lot of restaurants, but business is still way down. "I think a lot of people are making soup at home," she says e with a grim chuckle. Still, seeing sit-down restaurants everywhere — including her own Sixth & E — struggle with the logistics and even slimmer margins of takeout and delivery, she felt lucky to have a drive through window. "Corny as it sounds," she says, "that was a blessing. So I feel like I should give back."
With everything she'd been hearing and reading about how seniors are at increased risk for COVID-19, the nearby facility seemed like the place to lend her hands and ease her own worry about the world. "I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, I need to get them healthy food.' Like, if only I can get them healthy food, they won't die. That's how my mind works." While the CDC has yet to name soup as a preventative or cure, the part about easing her mind is working. Sending wholesome food to people she doesn't even see is, for Silver, "kind of a way to let them know that somebody cares. ... This is my feel good thing to be able to feed those folks." It that sense, she says it's actually selfish.
Scott says residents get outside food and have kitchens in their apartments, but, "Christine wanted to give them healthy, vitamin-packed food." Perhaps just as importantly, the soup is "a reason to check in on people," says Scott, and residents look forward to soup days "just to have someone to talk to."
Initially, Silver had planned to deliver soup for two or three weeks, but three months later, California is still under shelter in place and she's still delivering. At one point she'd told Scott she couldn't keep it up. "Financially it is a strain on my business," says Silver. The 50-liter pots of soup can run $120 to $150 in ingredients and take between five and seven hours to cook. It's a stretch for most food businesses in good times, much less when restaurant sales are down to half or less. Silver was running Sixth & E and Humboldt Soup Co. with about 60 percent of her staff staying on, and trying to work out how to open Delish on 5th — half of which is a kitchen store — on a now barren corner in Old Town. Early on, considering she says the setup left staff and customers too exposed. "I just didn't feel comfortable."
Scott didn't want residents to lose the soup delivery and offered to pay for ingredients so they could keep going. Silver still donates her labor and time but the cost of materials makes it workable. Now and then, Scott brings her donated ingredients, too, like the bean sprouts Silver turned into an Asian-inspired soup. That one went over well with the residents — the tomatillo soup, not so much.
Scott laughs over the phone. "Other than that they've loved it."
Silver received a Payroll Protection Program loan, without which she says there's "no way" she could operate. Her three landlords are "all working with me on some level," and she and her crew reorganized and reopened Delish on 5th for four hours a day. Her time is even more stretched but she's able to run her three spots — in their COVID-19 adjusted capacities — feed the seniors at Silvercrest and still sleep six or seven hours a night.
For now, the magical thinking of keeping 154 seniors healthy and safe with soup feels possible. Likewise keeping her three businesses running and her employees working. But even Silver's optimism is tempered by practicality as she looks ahead to the end of the eight-week PPP cashflow. "Once that money runs out," she says, "then it's gonna be a new ballgame."
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