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Erik Bruner-Yang On Harnessing The Power of 10 To Support Restaurants

Immediately after lockdown, the chef and his team launched a program to support restaurants and communities by funding free meals.

Produced by Zagat with

Capital One

Erik Bruner-Yang is chef and owner of several restaurants in the Washington DC area. He’s also the founder of the Power of 10 Initiative, an initiative that connects funding with restaurants to provide jobs and community meals. Capital One is proud to support the Power of 10 in their efforts to bring restaurant workers back to work across the country and support food access, helping the Power of 10 Initiative expand to eight total cities.

We actually started feeling the financial repercussions of COVID-19 long before the first shutdowns in March. That happened because all of my restaurants have an Asian influence or are predominantly Asian restaurants. With the stigma and the lack of knowledge at the time, people were associating COVID with Asian culture. We were seeing a drastic decline in business leading up to the shutdown, which was actually kind of a relief in the sense that everyone was taking it seriously now. From there, we started pivoting.

The first couple of days were just trauma. We went from a company of 250 people, and laid off 85 or 90 percent of our staff overnight. But we never fully closed any of the businesses. We transitioned immediately to to-go food. What we’ve been able to do all this time is continue to grow and add as many staff back as possible. I think we got down to about 20 employees, and we’re back to maybe 90. So we’re slowly getting there.

A well-run restaurant is probably one of the safest, cleanest places you can go. Outside of readjusting tables and implementing stronger practices, and more routine practices with masks and sanitizers, we haven’t had to make any drastic changes. Maketto is a very big restaurant with a lot of fresh air. ABC Pony is in a brand-new condominium with really good HVAC and really high ceilings. So we’ve been very blessed that we don’t have spaces that are restricted by size in terms of being able to adapt. Not everyone has that luxury.

March 15th was as rock-bottom as it can get. I don’t think we’ll ever feel like that moment. At this point, we’re nine months in—it is what it is. There’s really no purpose in trying to plan for anything longer than the next day, or maybe a couple of weeks if there’s a holiday, because you have to be comfortable with being fluid, or this is going to be a really tough time.

The upstairs at Maketto restaurant in Washington DC. Photo: Courtesy Erik Bruner-Yang.

We created and launched the Power of 10 Initiative relatively quickly—we were able to mobilize within 11 days after the shutdown, on March 26th. All these restaurants were closing, and everyone was doing GoFundMe pages and fundraisers. My original intention was to start a social media platform for people to have sustainable fundraising for however long this lasts. We realized that we needed to prove that this was going to work, so we turned it into an actual nonprofit. That’s how we got the ball rolling.

Founded in Washington DC, the concept of Power of 10 is to generate $10,000 a week in donations. That can help create 10 full-time jobs at a restaurant, and those jobs will help deliver 1,000 free meals to any community in America.

Most of my businesses are in Ward 6 in Washington DC. We were thinking it would be a real shame if all these great businesses that have put so much effort into building this community here would be lost, so we started sponsoring restaurants up and down H Street to try to keep our neighborhood as active as possible.

The program continued to grow, and the Capital One sponsorship really helped us expand nationally. With Capital One’s support, we were able to add 16 new restaurants, across five new cities, while also helping sustain current operations in existing restaurants. They’ve constantly put us in front and helped us get as much coverage as possible to continue our own fundraising goals outside of our larger corporate sponsorships, and I’m grateful for that.

I always love to tell that story of how we got connected with Capital One, which is also headquartered in the DC area. My restaurant ABC Pony is in this apartment complex where an employee at Capital One lives. She was coming down for her morning coffee, like she does every day, and she saw our team making hundreds of meals for delivery, and it piqued her interest. She said, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” And the staff was like, “Erik started this organization, and we’re delivering these meals to the hospital center later today.” She went to her boss and said, “Hey, there’s this guy in the building that I’m living in…” And it all kind of went from there. She and I had never met, but she went out of her way to make this happen for us. And that’s the power of people looking out for each other in the community. With Capital One being part of our DC community, and their overall commitment to helping support the dining industry, it made it that much more of a solid connection.

What we do is piece the puzzle together between organizations and individuals, and provide the funding to the restaurants to execute the needs for the people that are requesting the meals. A lot of the restaurants we’re sponsoring are very small, minority-owned businesses, and they’re just trying to keep their businesses afloat.

In the first three or four months of the pandemic, there was definitely a very large rush of support to restaurants all across the country, and organizations helping restaurants and restaurant workers. We did something very immediate and fast. Now we’re hitting the nine-month mark of this situation. As we go into next year, what is the long-term vision of the Power of 10 Initiative? We were great at reacting very quickly and helping a lot of people. Now we have to figure out who we partner with and what we do to continue to have this safety net for restaurants, especially since there will be some micro-shutdowns that will continue throughout the course of next year.

Our game plan for 2021 is trying to sponsor 200 individuals in the District of Columbia with groceries and hot meals for the entire year. That’s 200 people that won’t have to worry about where they’re going to get food for the year. We’ve already been working with 80 of those individuals since the start of the pandemic.

We’ll also continue with the main core of the Power of 10 Initiative, which is the $10,000 for 10 jobs for 1,000 meals a week. Because our organization is based on our ability to fundraise, the number of restaurants participating is always in flux. It’s almost like we’re running for political office. It just comes in waves. I’m forever an optimist. Some weeks I feel like we’re short, and then the next couple of weeks it comes through.

We have tailored a message that helps address a lot of needs through the same program. There are people who say, “I want to support small businesses,” or, “I want to support frontline workers,” or, “The unemployment safety net is heavily strained.” How do we work on all of these things? Because we make it so simple, a $1 donation trickles down in so many different ways. We are addressing several needs at once.

Actually, we’re just giving all these restaurants around the country these large catering orders. With that money, they’re able to keep their businesses going, and they’re making food for people that really need it. And that’s not going to stop anytime soon.