Acclaimed chef and restaurant owner Erik Bruner-Yang and his wife welcomed their third child and bought their first home in January. Just eight weeks later, the same weekend they moved into their new house in Washington, D.C., the mayor ordered all city restaurants to close because of COVID-19.
The 2007 UMW graduate felt fortunate that he and his family could survive – he’s the executive chef at D.C.-based chain &Pizza. But he’d invested 15 years and lots of drive to build six successful restaurants in the H Street corridor he calls home. Within 48 hours, he said, he went from having 225 employees to just 40.
“Basically, it broke down in my hands overnight,” said Bruner-Yang, a two-time James Beard-award finalist whose name and restaurants appear regularly in The Washington Post, Bon Appetit, Eater and other national publications. “It was this really weird feeling where I felt blessed and crushed at the same time.”
He was driving along a deserted H Street when he had an idea that could make a difference – “Power of 10” – partnering restaurants with local nonprofits to distribute food to those in need. A weekly $10,000, Bruner-Yang thought, could employ 10 full-time cooks and cover food to generate 1,000 meals for hungry people, first responders and hospital workers. Now, with help from the community he’s always supported and friends made at Mary Washington, the effort to feed families, fund farmers and revitalize restaurants has taken root across the country.
He began by pairing with Cane, a family-run Caribbean restaurant on H Street. Bruner-Yang couldn’t bear the idea of the owners losing their business – or that he would never be able to eat there again. “I just couldn’t let that happen.”
With that, Power of 10 was born. In just four days, he had raised $17,000 not only for Cane, but for other small, independent eateries. His plan – a crowd-funding campaign fueled by donations; $10 covers the cost of a meal and labor – isn’t just for his neighborhood, he said, but could work for any community restaurant anywhere in America. “I like to think of my idea as open-source.”
So far, the initiative has raised $200,000 and provided a stopgap source of work and funding to 10 D.C.-area eateries, including Bruner-Yang’s Maketto and ABC Pony, and a Peter Chang restaurant. It also has donated more than 20,000 meals and helped local farms and vendors stay in business.
“There is a real connection that your donation, your contribution affects multiple groups of people,” Bruner-Yang said. “It affects people staying employed, it affects people that need to get free meals, and it keeps the entire supply chain intact.”
Just over a month after it started, Power of 10 went bicoastal, launching at a traditional mom-and-pop Japanese restaurant in California that had been shuttered due to COVID-19. Bruner-Yang and Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, whose parents own Sushi Kiyosuzu in Los Angeles, connected through mutual friends on Instagram. A donor who divides time between D.C. and L.A. provided $10,000 to get the restaurant open, and now its cooks are being paid to make freshly prepared meals for essential workers.
The initiative is also active in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it was fully funded by a county grant. Bruner-Yang expects the program to be up and running in four new markets early this month.
His UMW friends have been in touch to help, too. J. Jerdonek ’07 of Alexandria met Bruner-Yang when they collaborated on a UMW business-class project. Recently, when Carpenter’s Shelter near Jerdonek put out a request to the community for meals for the homeless, Bruner-Yang was the first person he called.
“It’s a great idea to help out an industry that is essential,” Jerdonek said. “I’ve been working on the fundraising, and Erik has been great at getting the meals out.”
As the pandemic magnifies issues like food insecurity that have plagued the community for years, Bruner-Yang said, it’s time to step in to help.
“I have a platform, and it’s my responsibility to use it.”