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Caitlin Cullen, chef and owner of The Tandem, 1848 W. Fond du Lac Ave., was slightly out of breath as she answered a call from me in the early evening on Tuesday, April 21. But her voice didn’t harbor the worry or exhaustion I’ve heard in it during other phone conversations in the preceding weeks. Instead, it was filled with hope.
Earlier in the day, she’d received a package filled with swag from World Central Kitchen (WCK), an organization founded by Chef José Andrés which uses a variety of programs to leverage the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies during times of crisis and beyond.
The package, which included a sign, some t-shirts and other paraphernalia, was the icing on the cake for a funding partnership which will allow The Tandem to continue their free community meals program in a more sustainable way.
It began with an email
"To be honest, I was having a rough week," says Tarik Moody, DJ and Digital Director for Strategy and Innovation at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. "I was down and feeling a little useless and depressed. So I decided I wanted to cheer myself up ... do something, make a difference."
So he sat down and crafted an email to World Central Kitchen, an organization he’d read about in recent days and which had a mission that really resonated.
"I explained what the Tandem was doing in an underserved community that many are afraid to visit," he says, noting that he sent it off with relatively low expectations for a reply. "But, as my mom always said: You never know unless you try."
Turns out Moody's mom was right. Two hours later, he got a response. "I freaked out," he says. "I was literally shaking. I couldn’t believe it."
Moody says he exchanged a few more emails with the organization, and from there, they set up a Zoom call to chat with Cullen about her work.
Cullen says there’s little doubt in her head that The Tandem’s location played a role in securing the WCK’s support. "We are located in a zip code with one of the top incarceration rates in the nation. The unemployment rate here lingers right around 40 percent, and we’re centralized around wage workers, all of whom are really suffering right now."
Those statistics are also a big part of what makes The Tandem a perfect hub for helping a community in need.
Making a difference one meal at a time
Over the past six weeks, The Tandem has partnered with more than 20 restaurants and food purveyors to supply hundreds of community meals for unemployed workers and families in need.
Those partners have included Amilinda, Bavette, Brandywine, Cafe Corazon, Chef Halimo Geal from Clara Mohammad School, Cloud Red, Club Charlie’s, Dandan, Emerald City Catering, Focused Fork, Fresh Chef, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, Good Kind, The Laughing Taco, Lazy Susan, The Lutheran Home, McBob’s, Palermo’s, Strange Town, The National, The Pasta Tree, The Public Table, Three Brothers and Uncle Wolfie’s Breakfast Tavern.
But Cullen says the partnership with World Central Kitchen is a true game changer for the community meal program.
"The donations that people are giving The Tandem are vital," she says. "They help us to cover our overhead. But I’ve been looking for a resource for funding so that we can really support the work of local restaurants in a meaningful way. I’ve sent a bunch of emails and I’ve literally gotten no response. So, this is pretty amazing."
Food for those in need + revenue for restaurants
"Up to this point, we’ve given restaurants $5 per meal," Cullen adds. "But this will enable us to offer restaurants up to $1,000 a week to provide meals for our community."
It’s not much, in the big picture, but it’s an added revenue stream that definitely makes a difference during a time when independently owned restaurants are struggling to make ends meet.
"This has been my dream the whole time … to not only support the community, but also to support local restaurants," Cullen says.
But she says she's particularly excited to partner with an organization like World Central Kitchen that is truly making a difference.
"Often I find that a lot of people do a lot of talking about what they want to do," she says. "But I’m always a person who just does … often with a bit of recklessness, but also a good amount of responsibility. And it’s really encouraging to partner with an organization that is really doing what they set out to do."
Cullen says she does not know how long the funding from World Central Kitchen will last, as funds are likely contingent on the ever-changing landscape of the COVID-19 crisis. However, for the moment, she says she’s excited to be able to continue doing this important work.
"I’m geeked," says Cullen. "I don’t get excited very often, but I’m totally stoked. In the short term, we can really help our restaurant friends to survive. It also means that we can actually afford to continue paying employees. And we can really lean into making as much food as we can for the community."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.