In times of stress, we turn to comfort food. In Kansas City, Operation BBQ Relief and Plowboys Barbeque have partnered to provide a small measure of comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic through the Restaurant Relief Program. The pilot program is designed to feed the community with up to 2,500 free meals daily, keep restaurants from going out of business and help workers stay employed.

Operation BBQ Relief (OBR), founded by Kansas City native Stan Hays, has deployed in 26 states and internationally since 2011 in the wake of 66 disasters. Although the program has provided more than 3 million hot barbecue meals worldwide through its mission and The Always Serving Project, serving food locally is a first for Hays. “Kansas City is my hometown,” he says. “I’ve never had to do [food relief] in the area.”

OBR provides the know-how to organize and execute disaster relief operations. Plowboys Barbeque has the requisite size, barbecue expertise and facility to handle the production and service of up to 2,500 daily meals. The restaurant temporarily closed its Overland Park location in preparation for the change in service.

“We have two large smokers with a capacity of 3,000 pounds of meat at any given time, plus a smoker on a trailer that can handle another 500 pounds,” says Plowboys founder Todd Johns. “We can produce up to 7,000 portions of protein daily.”

Essential workers, nonprofit organizations and community-based organizations, as well as individuals, may request a free meal. Individual and family meals can be picked up curbside at the Plowboys location at 6737 W. 75th St. in Overland Park. Limited delivery is also available, while quantities last, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Several organizations that have already received meals include Fairmont Community Center, Newhouse Shelter, Free Hot Soup and Friends Feeding Friends.

Hays and Johns decided to develop and test the Restaurant Relief Program locally, evaluate its effectiveness and make financial and operational improvements as needed. “Teaming up with a restaurant is a win-win for us,” says Hays, who met Johns through a barbecue forum in 2006. “If this is successful in Kansas City, we will roll out the Restaurant Relief Program in other key markets throughout the country.”

Operation BBQ Relief will pay Plowboys a set amount to enable the rehiring of some of its 40 previously laid-off employees.“Plowboys is thrilled to bring back six employees to help us staff this operation,” Johns says.

The relief program is structured to run in two-week cycles. If demand continues to exist and donations of money and food are available, then the program will continue for successive two-week periods. “With donated product and financing, we’ll be able to do more,” says Hays. “Operation BBQ Relief put in seed money to start the program.”

“We’ve been getting good local support from Sysco,” Johns adds. “They provided us with a refrigerated trailer, 10 pallets of vegetables, five pallets of pork and connected us to Operation BBQ Relief, who has advised us on how to prepare balanced meals.”

Operation BBQ Relief’s recipes and menu will vary daily, based on available food supplies. A balanced meal typically consists of a five-ounce portion of protein, a starch such as rice, a side of vegetables like corn or green beans and a shelf-stable product like fruit cups. A sample meal might feature pulled chicken, red beans and rice, green beans and bread donated by Roma Bakery.

The Restaurant Relief Program is accepting donations from the community to cover the cost of food and supplies as well as donations of fresh produce, which can be made online. Hays and Johns encourage nonprofit organizations and local resources to contact OBR and also spread word about the relief program.

OBR has enhanced its normal sanitary protocols to meet guidelines established by the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization. “Over three weeks ago, we were in Nashville serving people after a tornado,” Hays says. “Since then, we’re adapting to social distancing. We thought about how we can provide as part of our mission while being socially responsible.’

Operation BBQ Relief and Plowboys developed measures to protect their team, volunteers and the public. Surfaces are sanitized regularly at each step in the process. Volunteers are bio-screened on arrival to the deployment site, and access is limited to food production areas. The operation has created zones separated by 50-feet or more feet for receiving, delivery and distribution of food.

“It’s been a journey for us. This is not our normal expertise. We normally serve 200 to 250 orders daily, or about 400 people,” Johns says. “My [employees] are happy to be busy and help the community. It’s nice to put the kitchen to use.”

Inquiries about obtaining no-cost meals for organizations feeding those in need may be directed to feedingkc@plowboysbbq.com.

Operation BBQ Relief, OBR.org