Juan Pablo Sanchez has always believed in investing in his community. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit San Diego, resulting in stay-at-home orders rolled through the state, the general manager of Super Cocina restaurant in City Heights was unsure how much longer his family-owned business could survive.

“We were having a really hard time and had to start implementing furloughs, start cutting back hours, and had to take out a loan just to keep afloat,” Pablo explained.

Pablo has been able to stay afloat in large part through a burgeoning, pay-it-forward High Road Kitchens program that is providing free meals, in addition to food on a sliding scale, to low-wage workers, first-responders, and healthcare professionals during a crisis that has led to more than 7,800 illnesses, hospitalized more than 1,350 people, and claimed at least 280 lives in the region in less than three months.

High Road Kitchens comprises a statewide network of independent restaurants that receive a $5,000 grant in exchange for providing at least 500 free meals to essential and low-wage workers, while also offering curbside pickup for customers paying on a sliding scale based on their finances. The project’s goal in San Diego County is to include at least 15 restaurants and serve at least 7,500 free meals.

Locally, the High Road Kitchens program is supported with a $110,000 contribution from the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund to the San Diego Workforce Partnership, which has contributed $150,000 to the effort. The San Diego Foundation and San Diego Workforce Partnership are working in conjunction with the One Fair Wage campaign to fund the initiative. Besides providing free and low-cost meals, restaurants are required to pay their workers a living wage and follow equitable employment practices.

“Helping our neighbors and friends get through this pandemic requires a multitude of unique collaborations like High Road Kitchens,” said Mark Stuart, President and CEO of The San Diego Foundation. “We are honored to be a lead partner in this innovative initiative connecting the generous spirit of San Diegans with the vital needs of our community.”

The San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund has granted more than $11 million to over 130 local nonprofits working on the frontline of the health and economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Rapid response grants are made possible thanks to more than 3,000 individuals, companies, foundations, and donor advised funds.

“This pandemic has hit restaurants hard, and it’s been a rollercoaster for our entire staff and their families,” said Mikey Knab, Director of Operations at Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant, which is among the local eateries taking part in the High Road Kitchens program. “Now, with High Road Kitchens, we’re able keep our employees working with the long-term initiative of increasing their wages. Being able to welcome the community with food is exactly why we’re here, and now we get to show extra love to those who need it most.”

The High Road Kitchens program made sense to Sanchez, who serves on the City Heights planning board and is active with four local nonprofits.

“The restaurant isn’t making money from the program itself, we’re just barely breaking even, but we’re able to feed people and keep our workers employed,” said Pablo, who noted that preparing the free and discounted meals had allowed him to keep his restaurant open for longer hours, which led to additional opportunity to attract more customers. “A lot of our employees have been here for years. We have an obligation to help them out. We are excited to provide meals to those in need and at the same time increase wages for those most susceptible at this time.”

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