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Line stretches down the block as unemployed restaurant workers look for relief at Mozzaplex

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Around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Robert Rios, 26, Carmen Galen, 23, and their 1-year-old daughter, Alani, stood in line on Highland Avenue, just south of Melrose. They joined about 150 other restaurant workers who had lined up for a free meal and some vital supplies.

On Wednesday night, Nancy Silverton, chef-owner of the Mozzaplex, announced that she, the LEE Initiative and Maker’s Mark would turn Chi Spacca into a makeshift crisis relief center. The plan was to prepare and serve 300 meals and supplies to restaurant workers adversely affected by the novel coronavirus shutdown. People of all ages, some wearing gloves, most on their phones, stood 6 feet apart, separated by strips of blue tape the restaurant stuck to the sidewalk.

“We need diapers,” Galen said. “That’s why we’re here.”

On Monday, Galen and Rios were laid off from their jobs. Galen was a server at Buffalo Wild Wings and Rios worked as a server and bartender at Olive Garden and as a server at BJ’s in Montebello.

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Angelenos line the block outside the Mozzaplex awaiting free meals and other relief supplies.
Angelenos line the block outside the Mozzaplex as Nancy Silverton and her staff prepare to offer 300 free meals and other supplies to those in the restaurant industry who have been affected by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The two heard about what Silverton was doing via a group text between Rios and his former coworkers.

“We’ve been looking at the news each day trying to see what the government is doing, just looking out for programs like this,” Rios said.

A couple of slots behind him, 42-year-old Brian Treitler stood in line with a mask on his face and black gloves on his hands. Until Sunday night, Treitler had a job as a server at Yardbird restaurant at the Beverly Center and another at C.O.D. restaurant on Third Street. He was hoping to get a meal for himself and his roommate, who also lost his restaurant job last weekend.

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During mandated dine-in closures, these restaurants are offering takeout and delivery as the coronavirus pandemic keeps Los Angeles close to home.

“A lot of people, especially the servers, live off of nightly tips. You can file unemployment but sometimes it will take three weeks before the check comes,” Treitler said. “If you don’t have the cash now to get into the store and get food … the fact that this company is doing this is pretty amazing.”

In the kitchen, Silverton and a skeleton crew packed takeout boxes. They prepared three meal options, each packaged with a green salad: roasted chicken thighs with rice and tomatillo sauce; a roasted vegetable lasagna; or a Bolognese lasagna with garlic mashed potatoes. Each person also received their choice of two supplies.

“Everything turned upside down for us,” Silverton said. “Sometimes in those moments the best thing to do is try to keep busy.”

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In the Chi Spacca dining room, the tables and chairs were cleared out to make room for rows of diapers, paper towels, toilet paper, Clorox wipes, boxed macaroni and cheese, lotion, soap and other necessities, all donated by people who reached out wanting to help.

“People that are even in the industry struggling to make ends meet are calling me saying, ‘I want to come work and donate my time,’” Mozza chef Elizabeth Hong said. “I can’t believe it.”

Nancy Silverton at Chi Spacca
The doors at Chi Spacca opened to out-of-work restaurant employees in need of a free meal and supplies.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Silverton plans to continue providing 300 meals and available supplies every evening for as long as she can. Maker’s Mark and the Lee Initiative granted Mozza and seven other restaurants around the country $50,000, enough to keep going for at least two weeks. Silverton said that in the day after she announced the effort, she had raised enough to continue for at least a third week.

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Kate Green, the Mozzaplex communications director, said its next priority is making sure to get the word out to L.A.’s Spanish-speaking restaurant workers.

Just as the Chi Spacca doors opened to receive the first people in line, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the new “Safer at Home” ordinance, extending the L.A. restaurant dining room shutdown to April 19 from March 31, in effect ensuring that many of the workers waiting in line will continue to be without jobs well into next month.


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