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Coronavirus: This non-profit pays restaurants to cook for those in need

Sonoma Family Meal CEO & Founder Heather Irwin joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss how she's pivoting her business model to help support those in need and the restaurant industry during the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: We're profiling one of our guests that we brought to you before when California was dealing with the raging wildfires in the state, a charity organization that was helping restaurants feed those most in need. And now that organization is pivoting slightly to help the restaurants get meals to those people in the state of California, particularly northern California, that have been suffering through the coronavirus shutdown. For more on that, I want to bring on Heather Irwin. She is the founder of Sonoma Family Meal, as well as the CEO of that organization.

And Heather, we were talking before about how you were helping out in your community to help these restaurants get food to those in need. And now, you're pivoting, including with the help of a $150,000 investment from John Jordan, the owner of Jordan Winery, helping you out here. So what has been the process in kind of keeping up with your mission to get food in the hands of those in need?

HEATHER IRWIN: It's been a real challenge because our usual model, when we spoke last time during the wildfires, we typically-- we're in a big kitchen with lots of volunteers, everybody cooking with chefs. And we obviously can't do that this time. So very quickly we decided that, hey, how can we support our local restaurants while we're also supporting all the people that are in need here. And you know, it is tough because we've been through several major disasters in Sonoma County over the last three years.

So we were already on the edge a little bit. Our restaurants were just recovering from all of what had happened. So yeah, we were really fortunate that we were able to work with a number of restaurants in the county. I think we're up to 17 now. We are actually paying them to stay open and to serve those in need. So we have about 17 nonprofits we're working with, for seniors, with, you know, undocumented, with all kinds of people in our county that are really food insecure right now. And those numbers have grown.

Fortunately-- you know, we did not know how we were going to pay for this. And this is going to be very expensive. We're estimating, if we go through June, we're looking at $1 million. But to kickstart what we were doing, we're so, so grateful, I reached out to Lisa Mattson from Jordan Winery, and almost immediately she said, how can we help? And they donated $150,000 to our organization. I think at this point, that's-- that money has helped cook about 6,000 meals. We are actually up to, this week, we're doing 9,700 meals this week from our different restaurants. And I mean, we're looking at a 543% increase in need just over the last three weeks.

So this obviously, like everyone else knows, this isn't going away anytime soon. And if we're able to support our restaurants, then we're able to support our community. But yeah, we're just really grateful that we had that Kickstarter fund. And then we also-- Jordan is doing a matching fund. So we're really pleased. If we could earn that 300,000, it's going to get us a long way to where we need to be.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and that's the tricky part, too, I mean, as you noted, that the list of those in need continues to grow the longer that this drags on. And you think about the restaurants, as well, shut down for a long time. That's why I kind of like the idea of actually paying to keep the restaurants working. They need customers out there, and it can help both sides here.

But when you're looking at it, I mean, you do raise the prospect of having to spend a lot more money here. So I know you guys are fundraising right now. Sonoma Family Meal is working on that. It does sound like you'll need quite a bit of money. But how long, I mean, do you expect this to continue, all the pain that you're hearing? What are you hearing from restaurant owners that are saying thank you for helping us at least get some business back?

HEATHER IRWIN: You know, it's really great. As many restaurants around the country have figured out, it's tough to kind of get that new model going of, you know, selling food to customers and helping out your community. I think that what we're going to see is months. We're modeling out for the middle of June, but I think we're going to see it go even longer. And with the financial impact that's coming from this disaster, this virus, we know that a lot of people that were already on the edge are going to fall off that economic edge.

And this could go on who knows how long. So that's why, you know, the funds are great. We've heard about other fundraising efforts, you know, around the country, and I just think that, you know, with [INAUDIBLE] helping us start out here, that we're just hoping that we can continue on, continue to help these restaurants who are so in need. And what's really exciting is I'm hearing from the restaurants, even though they're skeleton crews, they're bringing back the people that, you know, may not be able to get funding, who may not be able to find other jobs, who are really-- they're core people who need to have a job right now. So that feels pretty good, to be able to support all of our restaurant industry workers.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, it's just amazing to hear all the good that's being done by you guys. And you think about so many organizations out there that get over it. You already dealt with a crisis, you discovered, as you were discussing there about how you got through the wildfires and helped through that. And I think a lot of people probably would say, all right, I've done what I came here to do, but [INAUDIBLE] and continuing to do the work.

HEATHER IRWIN: We could use a break. We could definitely use a break up here, for sure. But you know what? We're going to keep doing what we do, and, you know, as long as we can do it, because we love our community. We're a resilient community. And we're just going to keep on keeping on.

ZACK GUZMAN: Well, sending you all the best from here in Brooklyn. Heather Irwin of Sonoma Family Meal, thank you so much for joining us, and God bless.

HEATHER IRWIN: Thank you.