Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin: Caitlin Cullen of Tandem Restaurant
Caitlin Cullen is the chef and owner of the Tandem restaurant in Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights. Since 2016, she has been using her restaurant to train young people on Milwaukee’s north side for careers in the service industry. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, her restaurant was a Southern joint with good food and great drinks; these days, the Tandem serves upwards of 300 free community meals daily in an effort to help address the growing food insecurity in Milwaukee due to the COVID-19 crisis. Tandem was slated to be a food partner for the 2020 Wisconsin Idea Seminar “Bay Tour,” which was postponed to 2021 in response to the COVID-19. We look forward to partnering with Tandem in 2021 on a Seminar component that highlights Southern food pathways to Milwaukee and how Southern culinary traditions continue to shape Milwaukee’s food cultures.
We caught up with Cullen to ask her a few questions about how she and her team are feeding hungry folks in Milwaukee.
In what ways has COVID-19 revealed the needs of your community? The need in our community is typically one of access – folks in Lindsay Heights are always hungry for opportunities for growth – jobs, secure and fair housing, education. Right now, that hunger is turning into the very real need for something to eat when jobs, secure housing, and education are all in jeopardy due to the crisis.
Restaurants were some of the first businesses to feel the effects of the pandemic. How was your team able to pivot so quickly from normal service to cooking free meals for Milwaukeeans in need of a meal? When we transitioned to carry out and delivery service, we had to cut our menu in half to make sure we were being as efficient with our resources as possible. That left a lot of perishables we were no longer going to need, so it seemed a no brainer to cook off our extra grub and turn it into meals for folks who were not prepared to be unemployed with no savings or food. On Wednesday, March 18th, we had 85 community meals ready for those in need, and thought they’d last a week or so; within three hours they were gone! The next day, we doubled down and made 150 meals; within two hours we had nothing left. It became clear that the need was urgent and growing, and would only continue to grow with the passing of time… So we had an all-staff meeting and decided that it came down to doing what we thought was right, even if it might mean putting our jobs on the line. We stopped serving paid meals that day at 5 pm and never looked back.
How have you adapted your daily operations in response to COVID-19? We don’t let anyone in the building, save for our 5 full-time employees and two volunteers (one of whom is my partner). Everyone has to wear a mask all day, there’s bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere, and we even created a rope line system outside in an effort to keep our patrons safe! The major upside to this all is that, for the first time in my culinary career, I work 9-5 Monday through Friday… So basically my world is upside down!
Have you seen your community come together in response to COVID-19? If so, how? Our community in Lindsay Heights has always been a strong and supportive one, and that hasn’t changed because of COVID-19. The broader Milwaukee community hast truly showed out, though, in ways we couldn’t imagine! Folks from all over three counties are sending in donations online and in the mail, restaurants facing their own uncertain futures are donating their time and efforts to help us keep our coolers full of meals for those in need, and local organizations that usually only work with nonprofit organizations are getting creative to help keep our project going!
How has COVID-19 strengthened your relationships with others? If it hasn’t strengthened yours, are you really doing it right?
Do you have any advice for others on keeping spirits up during times like these? A lot of us have never encountered something like this virus – an all-consuming, global event that affects everyone on this planet. Some of our elders have been through a world war, our friends have been on the front line of the AIDS epidemic, and our neighbors have faced hunger and fear. But for many of us, this is our first real crisis. So go easy on yourself. As long as you are operating from a place of love and consideration for others, even if you’re terrified of the future, your actions will serve you in the end.
Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin is a profile series that showcases fresh stories, observations, and insight from our Wisconsin Idea Seminar partners who are facing, engaging, and addressing critical issues in their communities.