Caitlin Cullen, chef and owner of The Tandem in Milwaukee, just wrapped up about three months of being a "bank" for other local restaurants struggling during the pandemic. The Tandem partnered with nonprofit World Central Kitchen to cut checks to local restaurants for providing meals to give out to those struggling in the community.
Caitlin Cullen, chef and owner of The Tandem in Milwaukee, just wrapped up about three months of being a "bank" for other local restaurants struggling during the pandemic. The Tandem partnered with nonprofit World Central Kitchen to cut checks to local restaurants for providing meals to give out to those struggling in the community. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The Tandem gave out food on its own, but was soon able to help other local restaurants in dire straits.

“This was a brand-new checkbook when the pandemic hit,” Caitlin Cullen said as she paged through an almost-depleted binder of three-to-a-page checks.

Cullen had just wrapped up about three months of turning her Milwaukee restaurant, The Tandem, into a high-class soup kitchen, and she had the check stubs to prove it. Normally a comfort food destination on Milwaukee’s north side, The Tandem started handing out free meals in the impoverished Lindsay Heights neighborhood in March, just as the pandemic hit neighbors who suddenly lost work or faced other hardships.

Cullen and her crew initially gave out 85 free, high-quality, no-questions-asked meals on March 18, and word spread quickly. That number would gradually increase until it reached about 2,000 daily meals. 

But by the end, not all of the meals were The Tandem’s. In April, Cullen was unexpectedly offered a partnership with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that helps provide communities with free meals in the wake of natural disasters. 

WCK offered The Tandem $10 for each meal it handed out. Donations alone were keeping The Tandem afloat, so Cullen hatched a plan: She would use the newfound funding to give checks to other struggling restaurants in exchange for donated meals. By the time the partnership ended last Friday, The Tandem had helped distribute $400,000 to 50 other local establishments, Cullen said.

“We really did become a bank,” Cullen said.

The WCK’s partnership with The Tandem was part of a larger effort from the organization aimed at shoring up local restaurants during the pandemic while simultaneously providing meals to the community. Over 2,300 restaurants in more than 30 states have benefitted from the program, which has paid out $60 million so far, according to the WCK.

The program highlights the ingenuity with which the restaurant industry has met the coronavirus pandemic in the absence of a cohesive –or even competent– government response. As President Trump’s administration has essentially given up on responding to the crisis and Gov. Tony Evers’ ability to respond has been crippled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, small businesses have had little tangible aid.

Even longstanding restaurants needed some help. Terri Lynn’s Soul Food Express, which has served the city’s northwest side since 1990, began participating in The Tandem’s program in June, said owner Terri Lynn Wigley.

Terri Lynn’s also does food service at schools, so the pandemic had an even greater effect on business because schools closed and that is what has made The Tandem “a great help” for her business.

“They really touched my heart,” Wigley said. “Everybody don’t share the wealth. And they did.”

Katie Rose, co-owner of Goodkind in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, said in an email that she and the restaurant’s other owners were “extremely proud” to work with The Tandem to provide meals to the community.

“It’s been a wild time of it and honestly this opportunity provided such a positive way to focus our energy  — it was finally something uplifting in such a strange time,” Rose wrote.

Now that the WCK partnership is over, The Tandem is taking some needed rest this week, Cullen said. The restaurant will no longer do daily free meals and will instead be passing out 500 meal kits with four to six servings every Friday.

Therese Thompson, left, and Will Cleveland, both cooks at The Tandem in Milwaukee, hold donated vegetables that will be used for the restaurant’s new meal kits that it will hand out beginning this week. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Included with the meals will be information on where recipients can get food from local organizations better equipped to do continual service, Cullen said.

“Food with dignity has always been our goal with this,” Cullen said. “But we’re also trying to wean people off of it because there are nonprofits in the area that have millions of dollars a year devoted to feeding people, and we don’t.”

Wigley and Cullen both said they would like to see The Tandem’s unique model in other areas with struggling restaurants. 

However, Cullen lamented that she had to get so creative in the first place, arguing that restaurants should have received more local, state, and federal aid because the economy has become so dominated by the service industry. She said officials, especially at the local level, should be willing to “try f—ing anything, rather than being afraid of failing or making the wrong decision.”

“We employ a huge portion of the city, an extraordinary amount of people, and it’s ridiculous that we’re not being treated as such,” Cullen said. “We are the factories of Milwaukee. The factories don’t exist anymore.”