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Every Sunday, Crisis Meal Project volunteers prepare boxed meals and deliver them to high-need families based on guidance from United Way. Courtesy of Z’s Cafe & Catering

With public and corporate events cancelled for over a month, catering companies have struggled to stay alive. Among them is Z’s Cafe & Catering, a family-owned business that regularly catered large parties along with corporate and private events around the city before the COVID-19 lockdown. Today their already small staff of 10 has been cut to four, and business is down 90 percent. Most of their paying customers are first-responders and healthcare workers ordering curbside pickup.

Before COVID-19, Z’s staffers would spend their mornings prepping for lunch service at the Women’s Club of Fort Worth, where Z’s would usually seat 150 people each day. Then staffers would prepare for the next day, and so on. They had steady work and a regular catering schedule before COVID-19 prompted businesses and organizations across the world to cancel events. With nobody to serve, head chef Janet Capua and her son, co-owner Carlo Capua, had to find a way to stay in business.

While this is a difficult time for any small business, the Capuas said they decided early into the pandemic to adapt their business model to meet the community’s changing food needs. They said they wanted to give back to the community that had encouraged them and their business to grow, and now Z’s was in a position to do that.

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“We ended up changing our business model where now we find different people in the community –– either individuals or families or businesses –– to sponsor meals for food-insecure citizens,” Carlo said.

In March, Z’s started the Crisis Meal Project, a partnership with United Way of Tarrant County and the Tarrant Area Food Bank (TAFB) to provide prepared meals for children and families struggling with food insecurity.

“We’re doing probably a couple-thousand meals a week now,” Carlo said.

After COVID-19 forced schools to close campuses and move to online coursework, many low-income families had to turn to nonprofits such as TAFB for help. However, some families can’t travel to food distributors such as food pantry sites.

“The hardships we’ve endured is nothing compared to the people we’re servicing right now,” Janet said.

Every Sunday, Crisis Meal Project volunteers prepare boxed meals and deliver them to high-need families based on guidance from United Way.

“The response from the community has been unbelievable,” she said. “They have turned around and supported us. … It’s mindboggling.”

The project is funded by monetary and food donations. According to the campaign page on the Z’s Cafe website, a $280 donation feeds a family of four for a week.

TAFB CEO Julie Butner said food distribution went up 60% at the start of the pandemic, signaling an increased need for food. Their operations are now up 80%.

Z’s Cafe & Catering has provided culinary training at the food bank in the past, so Butner was already familiar with their business when Carlo suggested they form a partnership.

“I think that Carlo has a servant’s heart and he’s interested in the good of the community,” Butner said. “I think he was trying to figure out a way to keep his team employed and busy and figure out a way to make a contribution to his community.”

Several restaurants in the area have donated their excess product to the food bank, but Butner said the Capuas motivated local businesses to become involved in fighting food insecurity.

Carlo said the biggest challenge facing Z’s Cafe is not knowing when they’ll be able to return to “normal” service. Even events that weren’t cancelled have been postponed indefinitely and Janet said the majority of their business usually comes from catering for large groups –– gatherings that will likely remain banned for a while, even after the state reopens nonessential businesses.

Meanwhile, food insecure families will still struggle, and Carlo said keeping the Crisis Meal Project alive relies on donors staying regularly involved.

“Honestly, I don’t know how many more donors we’re going to be able to find,” Carlo said. “We take meals over on Mondays and Sundays, so after we do these meals on Mondays, I’ve got to find another sponsor so we can do meals [next] Sunday. … These families are depending on us, and we can’t let them down.”

Despite this challenge, the Capuas sound cheerful when they talk about their new project. Janet said that as long as people need them, Z’s Cafe will find a way to help. After all, they get to support others while doing what they love most –– cooking.

“For us personally, God has always shown us the way,” she said. “It’s a journey of faith and food.”

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