“A risk we have to take”: Local restaurateur feeds first responders during pandemic
Associate News Editor
Food First Delaware is an initiative created by one man to help feed hospital workers, first responders and Delawareans affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Javier Acuna, 44, a restaurateur and the president of Hakuna Hospitality Group, said that Food First was created “just out of necessity.”
“Food First Delaware is an initiative that simply wants to help people retain their jobs while helping other people on the front lines and also those who were affected by the coronavirus in one way or another,” Acuna said.
The Hakuna Hospitality Group is a company that owns six restaurants, including Santa Fe Mexican Grill in Newark and Del Pez Mexican Gastropub in Wilmington.
Acuna is originally from Colombia and said he started working in the culinary industry when he was 18 years old.
“I was raised in a kitchen by my grandmother, so I’ve always been a part of the culinary world,” Acuna said.
In 2003, Acuna opened up his first restaurant, Santa Fe, on East Main Street and his company grew from there. When it was forced to close its doors due to coronavirus, Acuna said his company was in a “precarious position,” and he laid off 173 employees across all six of his restaurants.
“That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” Acuna said. “You can imagine seeing the fear on their faces and thinking what they were going to do about their families.”
Even though his restaurants closed down and most of his staff was out of a job, Acuna refused to abandon his work.
“I was doing a lot of thinking and decided we should remain open and try to help the people who were unemployed and the people who are right now fighting this war,” Acuna said.
In order to help with the project, Acuna brought back 20 employees to work part-time. He reached out to all of his restaurants and asked if the teams were willing to participate in Food First. He said he felt proud when his entire staff volunteered.
Acuna said that Food First primarily advertises on Facebook and other social media platforms, which is the company’s main avenue for advertising. However, he said that the advertising comes primarily from word-of-mouth. It is the individuals who spread the information that give the initiative more attention, he continued.
“[Food First] has helped to bring back some employees and relieves a bit of the financial pressure,” Acuna said. “But it’s not enough to be sustainable in the long-term, we lose money by being open and staying open.”
Acuna said that he does not want to view this initiative from a money perspective. He wants to see it from the “positive impact on the people we serve.”
According to Acuna, various farmers in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania are being laid off and forced to throw away their crops and pour milk down the drain.
“When the coronavirus mandates came, it affected the servers, bartenders, delivery companies, companies that produce food and the farmers,” Acuna said. “Now their families don’t have much income.”
Food First offers various kinds of meals to deliver to different “segments of society” as Acuna put it. According to the website, a “family meal for four” costs $48 and a “hearty meal for healthcare workers and first responders” costs $153. All the food is cooked in-house, Acuna said.
Individuals can purchase any of the different options and the meals will be sent to the respective people. The website also warns that any purchases are “not tax-deductible.”
Acuna said the company made hundreds of lunches and dinners for hospitals and the Wilmington Police Department. The main priority is first responders, but it also makes food baskets for its employees every week.
“I was hoping nobody would come at first because we were not prepared for it,” Acuna said.
The company got swamped with requests, but it can now make between 30 and 50 baskets a week and also sends some to migrant workers in Delaware and Pennsylvania.
“If we help each other and by you helping the restaurant industry, you’re helping a food chain of people and families,” Acuna said. “It’s like a domino effect.”
Rosalena Miller, 43, the executive pastry chef and owner of Have Your Cake Desserts, LLC, joined the initiative after Acuna reached out to her and asked if she was interested in partnering with him.
“Javier wanted to add desserts and sweets to the meals that are sent out,” Miller said. “He had been very impressed with my work and also wanted to help my business get out there.”
Like Acuna, Miller was born into the culinary industry. Her grandmother opened Lena’s, the first sub shop in Elkton, Maryland. Lena’s opened 60 years ago and still exists. Miller worked there and at other restaurants in the area, having filled the position of every restaurant job at some point.
Miller went back to school at age 40 to obtain a degree in culinary arts. She will graduate next month from Delaware Technical Community College.
“I had no desire to bake when I started school, but having to take pastry and baking courses I ended up falling in love with it,” Miller said.
Miller runs Have Your Cake Desserts from her home in Newark and provides custom cakes, cupcakes and cookies. She also bakes pastries for events such as birthdays, weddings and holidays.
She opened her own business last year while working as a pastry chef in a local restaurant and going to school full-time.
“[Acuna] allows me to have complete control over the desserts that I choose to make for the meals,” Miller said. “I like to give options when I am putting together an order.”
Miller delivers the food directly to whichever restaurant is doing the deliveries for each particular order.
Miller has sent out cookies and cupcakes to five locations including the Wilmington Police Department, Christiana Hospital and Nemours.
“Since not everyone likes the same things, I try to give multiple flavors of cookies and cupcakes for each delivery while also trying to make them delicious and easy-to-eat,” Miller said. “This is for those who may have limited time to eat.”
Miller said she loves helping people during these times and since the restaurant she currently works at closed, she understands how everybody else in the industry feels.
“It’s heartbreaking for me to see how this is affecting our industry,” Miller said. “[The restaurant industry] is a very close tight-knit family, everyone knows everyone, and I am more than happy to help however I can.”
Acuna said he is aware of the risks of staying open, but the restaurant industry is already well-trained on safety and sanitation.
“We’re not noobs when it comes to sanitation,” Acuna said. “We started new protocols, new strict safety guidelines and health-related rules so that we don’t get sick.”
Acuna feels optimistic that Food First really helps people maintain some level of sanity. It is difficult to keep up with the work, but he finds it rewarding to give back to the community.
“It’s very hard to produce what we produce and to ensure that we’re not going to get infected,” Acuna said. “But it’s a risk we have to take.”