The Kansas City restaurant industry has been turned upside down over the past few weeks due to COVID-19. Now, a group of local chefs, growers, distributors, industry insiders and business leaders have come together to create Chef Collective KC, a group dedicated to serving the community, while retaining their workforce. The collective turns local restaurants into community kitchens to assist local non-profit agencies in feeding those in need through The Community Meals Project.

Kansas City civic entrepreneur Jon Taylor of Reach Collaborative, a community problem-solving organization, worked in collaboration with three Kansas City chefs to create Chef Collective KC. His partners include Howard Hanna, co-owner of The Rieger and Çava, Michael Foust, owner of Black Sheep, and Brandon Winn, formerly executive chef of Webster House, which has announced it will close its doors permanently post-pandemic.

Chef Collective KC is designed to support the staggering number of people in the city who are currently out of work or unable to work due to the coronavirus, in addition to those with day-to-day hunger issues including school children, the elderly and the homeless.

The model is simple: The collective allows local chefs to use their restaurants as community kitchens during an outbreak such as COVID-19 or any other catastrophic event, which in turn allows them to retain their employees. After the crisis, the restaurants will slowly transition away from making free meals to prepare to reopen their own restaurants until there's another need.

Chef Collective KC creates a support system around restaurants that choose to execute this model in their own restaurants during a crisis by solving problems like food sourcing, storage, delivery of meals to the people who need them most and, perhaps most importantly, how long the model is sustainable for any one restaurant.

"This crisis shines a light on existing food system vulnerabilities many on our team have been thinking about and working on for several years," Taylor says. "Through The Community Meals Project, we are addressing the rise in food insecurity during these times while, in tandem, building a new sustainable model that will help local growers and restaurants emerge stronger than they were before."

Inspired by chef and humanitarian José Andrés and his work through World Central Kitchen, Hanna and Foust have both already transitioned their restaurants into emergency community kitchens during the pandemic. The goal moving forward is for Kansas City restaurants to develop a more sustainable model for doing this kind of work that is stable, funded and safe for their culinary teams to continue producing large quantities of free meals that can be picked up by community volunteers and delivered where they are most needed.

Sourcing food to fund these restaurant kitchens is an important part of this equation, and the collective is working with a network of food distributors along with local and regional growers. Both packaged and perishable items will be delivered to Kanbe's Market, a centralized receiving, processing and food distribution center. Once inspected, ingredients would be allocated to participating restaurant kitchens and prepared into meals that will be delivered to select locations throughout the community.

The initial meal distribution locations for The Community Meals Project will include City Union Mission, Lykins Neighborhood, Sheffield Neighborhood and the Morningstar Youth & Family Life Center.

To get an initiative of this size off the ground, it takes money, and Chefs Collective KC has received lead funding from Bank of America with supporting sponsorship money from the Visit KC Foundation. Bud Light, Charlie Hustle and J. Rieger & Co. have also pledged their support to the cause through contributing sponsorships.

"Working closely with our local partners, Bank of America remains committed to finding the most effective ways to address critical needs in our community during this time," Matt Linski, Bank of America's Kansas City market president, said in a statement. "We are dedicated to supporting the work of The Community Meals Project as they provide much-needed relief for hospitality workers, first responders, seniors and others who are currently facing food insecurity in the Kansas City metropolitan area."

As part of the launch of Chef Collective KC, four local restaurants will host Industry Nights all this week to feed local hospitality workers. The first event was held Mon., May 4 at Room 39, followed by District Pour House on Tue., May 5., then Waldo Thai and finally Brewery Emperial later this week. Check the Chef Collective KC Facebook page for more information on these industry nights.

As the project moves forward, funding from new sponsors will allow for broader collaboration between restaurants and nonprofit kitchens to meet Kansas City’s growing need. Currently, the first phase of fundraising is underway with the goal of raising $1 million. If they reach the $5 million mark, they believe they can replicate this model nationally. 

Visit KC is another proud sponsor of this initiative. The organization believes that helping to fund the Chefs Collective KC is an important way to give back to the hospitality community in Kansas City that has given us all so much.

"In this time of uncertainty, our thoughts go to those who work alongside us in the hospitality industry, which numbers almost 48,000 strong and $1.8 billion in wages," Visit KC president and CEO Jason Fulvi said in a statement. "Each January, the hospitality community helps us raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local charities during Kansas City Restaurant Week, and now it's our turn to support them. We are proud to play a small role in launching The Community Meals Project and, together with Bank of America, applaud their dedication to workforce preservation and feeding those among us who are deeply affected by this crisis."

Chef Collective KC's Community Meals Project is a sponsored project of Community Capital Fund (CCF), a nonprofit organization that invests in innovative and measurable community development in the Kansas City region. Learn more about the Community Capital Fund at ccfkansascity.org.

For more information, visit chefcollectivekc.com.