Milwaukee Restaurant Shifts From Full Service to ‘Good and Dignified’ Free Meals



By Jonathon Sadowski

March 20, 2020

For as long as it can during the outbreak, The Tandem will serve an impoverished neighborhood

As news of the ever-worsening coronavirus pandemic rolled in over the past weekend, Caitlin Cullen knew she had to make immediate changes at her restaurant, The Tandem.

On Monday, preempting the statewide dine-in ban, Cullen closed her Milwaukee restaurant for dine-in services, only allowing curbside pickup. And on Wednesday, as uncertainty grew, Cullen realized she needed to cook down her food stock in case Gov. Tony Evers ordered a full shutdown of restaurants. So Cullen decided to give out free meals to anyone in the community, no questions asked.

The Tandem, which opened in 2016, shut down commercial operations on Thursday and will now give out the meals Monday through Friday for as long as the restaurant is able. It is one of a handful of trendy businesses within Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights neighborhood, which has for years struggled with unemployment and poverty but has also seen investment recently in the form of new social-entrepreneurial businesses.

Milwaukee Restaurant Shifts From Full Service to ‘Good and Dignified’ Free Meals
Caitlin Cullen, chef and owner of The Tandem in Milwaukee, takes a breather after the restuarant finished handing out 150 free community meals to help with the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

But as businesses shut down during the pandemic, some Lindsay Heights residents, many of whom likely do not have an emergency fund or savings to fall back on, will find themselves unemployed and panicked. Cullen wants to fill an inevitable need.

“The folks, especially right now that are being affected, are not used to being ****ed like this,” Cullen said. “Servers are used to being able to eat at the restaurant they work at, and living paycheck to paycheck is not so terrible. But living no paycheck to no paycheck is really difficult. We want to make sure that meals stay good and dignified.”

The meals are not unlike The Tandem’s normal comfort-food menu. On Thursday, the kitchen offered barbecue chicken drumsticks, pepper steak, and vegan “Beyond Meat” spaghetti. Meals will vary depending on available ingredients, and there will always be a vegetarian or vegan option.

“Nobody wants to eat a ****ing peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” Cullen said.

Eighty-five meals were given out on Wednesday, and 150 were on Thursday; everything was gone within hours. The current plan is to sustain a level of 150 meals per day, while serving more if possible.

The restaurant also started accepting monetary donations through its website and in-person donations of food. Within 30 hours of launching the online donation option, The Tandem had received $7,000, Cullen said. That money goes toward supplies and payroll. 

The Tandem typically has about 25 employees, but Cullen had to cut staff down to a skeleton crew of five workers. She said the decisions were made based on which employees had other means of financial support than just their job.

Dishwasher Charles Littlejohn, one of the five staff members remaining, said he was happy to help out his neighborhood in such a difficult time.

“Whatever we can do to help the community,” Littlejohn said.

Milwaukee Restaurant Shifts From Full Service to ‘Good and Dignified’ Free Meals
Charles Littlejohn, a dishwasher at The Tandem in Milwaukee, brings in a box of donations Thursday afternoon. The restaurant is accepting donations to help cook high-quality, free meals for the community. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Layoffs have been piling up nationwide as business restrictions go into effect, causing anxiety among employees and owners alike.

“Half the restaurants in the city aren’t going to come out of this alive, even with loans,” Cullen said. “We can’t sit on product like this. And our staff, even if our restaurant manages to survive, who will be there to work at the end after everyone’s been decimated?”

And Cullens does not exempt herself from that half. She recognizes it’s a very real possibility that these next few weeks or months will be The Tandem’s last.

“If we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down doing what we do, which is taking care of our neighbors,” Cullen said.

The Tandem is continually posting updates, including the daily community meal menu, on its Facebook page. Several phone numbers are listed on the page’s posts and are available to call to place an order.
To help The Tandem provide free meals, donate at its website.




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