The clever way Amazon’s Audible is helping restaurants survive COVID-1

The timing couldn’t have been worse for Kai Campbell’s restaurant business in Newark, New Jersey. His first restaurant, a burger joint with an Indian twist, had been broken into and trashed just before New Year’s, and he’d used most of January to rebuild and change formats. Customers were just getting used to its new vegetarian menu. Construction on a second restaurant was wrapping up, and the health inspection would soon allow doors to open in March. And the Jewish deli he’d recently purchased—one of the oldest restaurants in the city—was just stabilizing after the change in ownership.

By the end of March, all three of these restaurants were shuttered. The newest never even got a chance to open.

Like many restaurateurs, Campbell’s business dried up almost immediately as the coronavirus pandemic led to lockdowns around the world. He told the landlord of his first restaurant that he’d have to stop paying rent in April, and didn’t know if or when he’d be able to start again. “I was going to let that go,” Campbell says. “And then I got the call from Audible.”

Audible, the audiobooks company owned by Amazon, has been headquartered in Newark since 2007 and has made an effort over the past 13 years to integrate itself into the community. As the economic devastation of the coronavirus became evident in Newark, a city that has seen decades of disinvestment, Audible began reaching out to its community partners, such as the nonprofit Newark Alliance and the office of Newark mayor Ras J. Baraka, to plan a response. In early April, the company launched Newark Working Kitchens, a program to reopen struggling restaurants by paying them to cook meals and deliver them to the neediest residents in the city.

Newark is a city that’s long been down on its luck. Troubles dating back to civil unrest in the late 1960s have had ripple effects through the city’s economy and social health, in the form of declining population, concentrated poverty, and disproportionate income levels among the city’s nonwhite population. On the rebound just before being cut down by the financial crisis of 2008, Newark has since seen selective growth that many say is pushing out the city’s longtime residents. Lead contamination in its drinking water remains a persistent example of lingering inequities.

Newark Working Kitchens is an effort to stop some of these problems from getting worse during the pandemic. Created in partnership with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen and celebrity chef and recent Newark restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, the program has signed up local restaurants to reopen their kitchens and each cook at least 200 meals per day for delivery to community members. After 17 weeks of operation, the program has delivered more than 300,000 free meals and put employees back to work in 25 restaurants, including Campbell’s, where six people are now back in the kitchen.

“I jumped at that opportunity, knowing that it would be the last thing and probably the only thing that would get us going,” he says. “To be honest with you, it saved our business.”

The program is as much about saving the local economy as feeding those hit hardest by the pandemic, according to Audible founder Don Katz. “When the crisis hit, it became clear that . . . the more fragile cities and the people living in the bottom 25% of the economy were going to get hammered much worse by this than the people in the middle or the people at the top,” says Katz. “The job bases of the restaurant economy and the small food economy are really where a lot of the people living paycheck to paycheck [are].”

Seeded with $1.5 million in funding from Audible, the Newark program has since pulled in major donations from other businesses in the city, including $250,000 from TD Bank, $350,000 from energy company PSEG, and $200,000 from Thrive Global, as well as $500,000 from the City of Newark. Fundraising is ongoing, as is the impact of the pandemic. So far, there have been nearly 20,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Essex County, where Newark is located.

One of those cases was Walter Green, the owner of Uncle Willie’s Wings, a chicken wings restaurant in south Newark. “I was in the hospital. I was there alone. And I said that if I got out I was definitely going to make sure that I did whatever I can to help as many people as I can,” he says. After about a month of recovery, he opened his shop in April and began giving away meals to people in the community—and quickly burning through his savings. Then he was contacted about participating in Newark Working Kitchens. Green joined the program, which enabled him to keep giving without going broke. “It falls in line with what I was already doing, and I wanted to do more,” he says.

The idea for Newark Working Kitchens grew out of one of Audible’s other community efforts, known as Lunch Out Wednesday. Like many corporate offices, Audible offers employees lunch in an on-site cafeteria—a perk that ends up keeping them in the building instead of venturing out to local restaurants. In 2017, Audible began subsidizing a weekly $15 voucher for local restaurants to encourage employees to eat out. The program had just marked its 30,000th meal when the pandemic struck.

Katz, who calls himself a student of Jane Jacobs, says community involvement and giving are central to Audible’s culture. That philosophy was directly tied to its decision to move from suburban Wayne, New Jersey, to Newark, where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line. In the 20th century, Katz says, many companies and corporations “believed in a social compact that was directly connected to society’s benefit.” He points to business leaders and philanthropists such as Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company, who established a fund in 1917 to build schools for African American children in the deprived and segregated South. “It was different,” Katz says. “And it really didn’t become this disaggregated, arm’s-length corporate giving until the ’80s”—a business era he covered as a journalist for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Esquire.

Instead of simply donating to a charitable organization such as United Way and calling it corporate social responsibility, Katz says the company’s thinking in getting involved in Newark was to “see if a successful company can catalyze change directly.”

As the coronavirus spread and the case numbers rose, it became clear to Katz that the impact on the local economy would be significant. Newark Working Kitchens is one way to stop the bleeding.

He says other big companies that are weathering the pandemic could easily do something similar. “The reality is many big corporations in America are not spending their substantial food budgets. They’re also not spending their substantial global travel budgets, for obvious reasons. So if you’re a healthy company and you’re battened down and you’re not fighting just to stay alive,” he says, “you could look at your [profit and loss statement] and realize you could probably help your community yourself.”

Kats says he’s hoping to spread the concept to other hard-hit New Jersey cities, such as Camden and Trenton, and has also had interest from other cities, including Toronto. But he argues that businesses in these places will have to step up. “The best thing is if you can build models that other people can take to other places,” he says.

For now, the program is focused on raising money to keep providing meals to people in Newark—and to keep people employed in the local restaurants cooking them, such as Kai Campbell’s.

“So many people are out of work, so many people can’t pay their bills. Right now, we’re not profitable, but we’re paying our bills, which I cannot be more thankful for,” Campbell says. “Because three months ago, two months ago, we were not going to be in business at all. We were done. The death rattle was ringing in our ears.”

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