Every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m, two men in surgical masks and gloves stand outside The Tasting Room restaurant and wine bar in Uptown Park, a fashionable outdoor retail center located near the heart of Houston.
Just a few months ago this upscale retail center was bustling with people headed into artisan craft stores or to their restaurant reservations. The Tasting Room’s sprawling gazebo outdoor seating area would have been full of such people. There would be sounds of conversation, the clatter of silverware and the clinking together of elegant glasses that would have held any one of the restaurant’s vast assortment of wines.
Now, the only sound is the steady hum of cars zipping by on the I-610.
One of the masked men standing in the Texas heat is none other than Jerry Lasco, owner of The Tasting Room. After a few minutes, a car slowly pulls up next to the restaurant and Jerry exchanges a few friendly words with the driver.
Between the baseball cap and the surgical mask, you can only see a thin sliver of his face, but his crinkling eyes tell you he’s smiling.
Lasco hands the driver a bag containing four freshly made lasagna dinners through the car window. He does the same thing for the next car and then the next.
“We say hi and ask how they are doing. Most are struggling but hanging in there. They are extremely grateful and appreciative,” Lasco said.
The people pulling up outside of Lasco’s restaurant are all hospitality workers who have been without a source of income since the state-mandated restaurant shutdowns as a result of COVID-19.
“I’d say the most valuable commodity to any business, at least any business that relies on a staff, are the employees. It’s a small gesture, but it’s meaningful if you’re in a very tight situation, and some of our folks frankly are, they live paycheck to paycheck,” Lasco said.
As a restaurant owner himself, Lasco said he had no choice but to furlough 90% of his own staff, not just at this location but at all eight of the restaurants in Texas that his company, Lasco Enterprises, owns.
“We just talked about how we don’t know how long this is going to last, we don’t know how severe this is going to be, you know, this is how much money we have in the bank,” Lasco said.
Even before Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to shut down restaurants on March 19, people in Texas had already begun the process of transitioning their lives behind the defensive barriers of their own homes. Offices, schools and universities were closing across the country and people began to retreat from public gatherings. The astoundingly low numbers Lasco was reading from revenue earned the previous week showed what he and his co-workers already knew to be true — restaurants were going to have to shut down very soon.
“There was a lot of accounting that had to be done to figure out, what can we do to survive?”
Jerry Lasco’s area of expertise was in operations, and he would usually spend his days making sure his restaurants were well supplied and that they were generating revenue– but with all of his restaurants closed except for takeout, what operations were there left for him to run? His wife Laura Lasco, vice president of the company, sat in the office neighboring his, busily trying to sort out human resources and legal issues. Jerry spun in his swivel chair, feeling a little lost.
“I felt a little helpless because my job really was taken away,” Jerry said.
The man helping Jerry hand out free meals for the hospitality workers and their families is Dave Berry, the first person to donate to Lasco Enterprises. He donated $1,000, to which Jerry matched with another $1,000 to provide free meals to his own staff.
“We went two weeks without the GoFundMe account and I was pressing him, really his PR people, to get that set up,” Berry said.
The Gofundme page Jerry and his PR team created, titled “Feeding Houston’s Hospitality and First Responders,” raised $21,372 in donations from 86 donors, exceeding its reach goal of $20,000. The donations, along with some additional funding from Lasco Enterprises, have allowed Jerry and Berry to provide 500 free meals a week to not only Lasco employees but anyone in the hospitality industry who drops by the restaurant.
“I was really just winging it and wrote about what we wanted to do and what our vision was and hit send and next thing you know, it took off. I started getting tons of emails,” Jerry Lasco said.
After providing meals to hospitality workers and their families for a few weeks, Jerry received an email from Sgt. Brian “BK” Klevens with a proposal to expand the free dinner program to first responders and health care workers at a second restaurant location.
Beyond Kleven’s work at the Houston Police Department, he has been an avid supporter of the first responder community, donating to various causes, hosting fundraisers and even opening a law enforcement themed tattoo parlour called Prison Break Tattoos. About 95% of his clientele are first responders looking to get a tattoo meaningful to their work, according to Klevens. Prison Break Tattoos even has an A&E network reality TV show called Hero Ink.
“The Houston community has been great. Any opportunity that people have had to give back — that’s what they’ve done,” Klevens said.
Over several years of hosting benefits for the first responder community, he had become very familiar with another Lasco Enterprises restaurant, located just a two-minute drive away from his tattoo parlour, called Max’s Wine Dive. Now, every Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. Jerry Lasco and his 16-year-old son, Max, can be found handing out individual meals to first responders at Max’s Wine Dive on Washington Avenue.
“After being quarantined for so long, I truly lost perspective of the world around me and being out there truly reminded me of the challenging times people are overcoming. It really was an honor to give back to these people who risk their lives to help others,” Max Lasco said.
Restaurants, movie theaters, retail centers and churches have all been permitted to reopen at 25% capacity as of May 1. Aside from his Austin location, Jerry Lasco has reopened all his restaurants with a “skeleton crew” but is still keeping the free meal programs.
“We’re willing to do it as long as people still need it,” Jerry said.
Featured image courtesy of Unsplash.com