32,000 Free Meals: Pandemic Didn't Stop Beloved Cafe From Helping

Gus Saltonstall

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, NY — Billy Dove and Thomas Loughlin felt the terrifying force of the coronavirus pandemic on multiple levels.

On a personal level, Dove and Loughlin, along with the rest of Loughlin's family, were all infected with the virus during March.

On a business level, the two men saw a year's worth of catering events get canceled in the span of a week.

It didn't stop the two from finding a way to help.

Dove and Loughlin are the owners of Company on Edgecombe in Washington Heights. It's a café and catering service located at the corner of Edgecombe Avenue and 159th Street.

The café, which recently reopened, wasn't operating at the time of the shutdown, but the two men had to find new ways to put their catering skills to work without any events going on.

The longtime business partners came close to lending their services to various coronavirus-related meal missions, whether it was helping to feed frontline works or connecting with other organizations helping with food insecurity in the COVID-19 hub of the world.

The plans ended up falling through for various reasons so Dove and Loughlin got in touch with the Community League of the Heights (CLOTH) and its Executive Director, Yvonne Stennett.

Through their subsequent conversation with CLOTH and with the help of a grant from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund — Dove and Loughlin set up a plan to feed Washington Heights.

Starting in the middle of May — for six straight months — Company on Edgecombe fed 180 dinners a day to families in Upper Manhattan for free.

That's over 32,000 free meals.

Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.
Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.

"Getting in touch with CLOTH came up, so when we spoke with Stennett, we realized that in this program we created, we would be able to see the final end, we would be able to see where the food went, and it just seemed to work for us and our organization,"Dove told Patch.

The process was simple.

Families would come to the Edgecombe Avenue and 159th Street location, pick up their meals without having to wait in line, and leave with a fresh gourmet meal at no cost to them.

Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.
Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.

"Thought went into every meal. Love went into every meal," Stennett wrote to Patch. "At first the students and family members were seemingly timid, shy and reserved. But, soon relationships grew, and the gratitude for the care and sincerity that went into the meals and evidenced through the interaction with Billy and Tom was being expressed daily."

Dove and Loughlin also connected with the leadership team at the Community Health Academy of the Heights to identify students and families with food insecurity.

"We couldn't just feed the child that was going to school, if they were food insecure, their family was food insecure," Loughlin said. "What we did was make sure that the whole family was listed as part of the 180 meals, so that their brothers, sisters, mothers, weren't watching them eat dinner without anything."

Staff at the Washington Heights school helped organize the students, communicated with parents, created daily schedules, and made sure operations run smoothly on that end.

As the days, weeks and months went on, other Upper Manhattan residents and restaurants began donating funds and equipment to help provide the meals.

"For us, it's an amazing thing to think you are able to help a family through maybe a couple months of crisis, and you make a difference a little bit," Loughlin said. "You do your own little contributions, that's the part that feels so good."

Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.
Photo courtesy of Company on Edgecombe.

Patch has partnered with Feeding America to help raise awareness on behalf of the millions of Americans facing hunger. Feeding America, which supports 200 food banks across the country, estimates that in 2020, more than 50 million Americans will not have enough nutritious food to eat due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a Patch social good project; Feeding America receives 100 percent of donations. Find out how you can donate in your community or find a food pantry near you.

This article originally appeared on the Washington Heights-Inwood Patch