Operation Fill the Fridge Helps Miami's Hospitality Workers Amid COVID-19

Photo courtesy of Roberto Inoa
The Inoa family at Christmas: (from left) Adrian, Rosa, Angel, and Roberto
Roberto Inoa has made the hospitality industry his lifelong career. Three years ago, he started working at the One Hotel’s Habitat restaurant, where he found steady employment as a barista until mid-March when management informed Inoa and his coworkers that the hotel's management was closing.

Inoa worked odd jobs at the hotel in order to collect a paycheck. Then in May, when the pandemic seemed to be subsiding, he was called back in. That lasted until early June when a resurgence in COVID-19 cases brought another dining-room closure.

“I’ve been at Habitat almost three years and right now, I’m working as a polisher and assisting the food runners and bussers. I help with whatever they need,” Inoa says. “And because there’s only outdoor dining, they need help cleaning the tables."  The father of two only gets about three shifts a week — not enough to feed his family and pay his monthly bill of $415 for medical insurance.

“That's why I make myself available for whatever is needed,” he says. “I really don’t mind. I’m going to be 74 in a few months, and it feeds my ego when the younger guys see the energy I have. I consider it a blessing to be working at this age.”

New to the restaurant industry, Jessica Hernandez had worked as a cook at Pura Vida restaurant in Miami Beach for just a few months, when things quickly changed. “At first, I was working five to six hours a day but recently, it's down to three to four hours and I’m only coming in four days a week,” Hernandez says. “It really varies. They call me when they need me.”

Hernandez's co-workers are dealing with the same reduction of hours, an effort by management to keep everyone employed. “They’re trying to spread the work among all employees,” she says. “By doing this, they’ve been able to keep everyone on. But there’s no word on how long this can go on.”

Right now, she works to pay the rent for the Miami Beach apartment where she lives with her husband and their six-year-old son. Her husband also works in the industry as part of a cleaning crew, but with no indoor dining at the moment, he's out of work.

Evert Lopez, a prep cook at Kansas Bar & Grill on Lincoln Road who worked his way up from dishwasher, faces a similar situation. Currently, the restaurant is only open Friday and Saturday evenings for al fresco dining.

Evert says restaurant management is trying to keep everyone employed, but that means a significant decrease in hours. "I was practically out of work for three months when they started calling me in, but still, it's just a few days a week." The reduction in hours is barely enough to support his six-year-old son.

Faced with dwindling resources, all three hospitality workers turned to Operation Fill the Fridge, a food-assistance fundraising effort created by Mytyl Simancas, Leslie Cooper, Erin Michelle Newberg, Jessica Kassin, and Mabel de Beunza. The four women founded the organization in order to help Miami's restaurant dishwashers, cooks, delivery people, valet, construction, housekeepers, and nannies — what they call the "invisible workforce."

To date, the women have raised nearly $30,000 via the crowd-funding site GoFundMe and matched more than 200 families with volunteers. The volunteers are paired with an "adopted" family for whom they buy groceries, pay utilities and rent, and purchase clothes and other necessities.

“When you live a life of meaning and purpose, great things can be accomplished. We will continue with our mission of helping these families until the last one is back on their feet. Each one of these families’ success story is everybody’s success story," explains Simancas, a Miami Beach real estate agent.

Donations can be made via Fill the Fridge's GoFundMe page, where the founders write, "These kind, grateful people are the ones who make our city work behind the scenes. It takes a village and it has been extremely heartwarming in a tragedy like this where we are all affected, to witness the pure compassion and generosity of our community."

"We are grassroots, take immediate action, and need help," Mabel de Beunza says. "We hope our community will reach out, adopt a family, fill a fridge, donate, or volunteer. We will not sit idly by and watch this happen in our backyard, that is why we started Adopt-a-Family Miami, also known as Fill the Fridge."

Evert Lopez considers Operation Fill the Fridge to be a lifeline for his family. "They paid my rent for a month, brought me food, and even bought clothes for my son," he says.

Says Roberto Inoa: “It’s been very, very helpful. I continue to receive food from them. They bring cereal, canned goods, beans, and rice. It's always a very big, varied package of food."