Blog Post / April 7, 2020 / Industry Voices

From $1K to $7M: How one SevenRooms employee’s vision helped form Frontline Foods

by Ilana Brown

The headlines were screaming and the news was breaking faster, more intensely. The fear and panic were palpable. Governments around the world were putting out ‘work from home’ suggestions and ‘shelter in place’ orders. Then it happened – whole cities were shut down, and restaurants were mandated to close their doors.

COVID-19 escalated quickly for the whole world, but it happened even faster for the hospitality industry. Hotels began operating at less than 5% occupancy, and restaurant revenue flatlined.

The industry I loved – filled with the most passionate, driven, hard-working people I knew – collapsed overnight. Instead of sharing news about upcoming special events and welcoming people into their dining rooms for anniversaries and birthdays, they were putting out a different message entirely.

Emails, Instagram posts and Tweets all shared the same message – a plea for help. They asked for donations to GoFundMe pages supporting staff who they had been forced to furlough or layoff due to economic circumstances. They shared links to purchase gift cards that would bring a much-needed infusion of cash into the business. Many shut down entirely -- unsure whether they’d be able to reopen their doors in the future.

The messages, multiple times a day, were heartbreaking. These SevenRooms clients, who I’d had the privilege to work with for over six years, weren’t just a name on a page or a line on a revenue sheet – they were my family. I’d witnessed them busting their asses day in and day out to make sure your special moments at their restaurants were unforgettable. And I was proud to play a small role in helping them execute on these memorable experiences.

And through all of this – as they’ve done many times before – I’m proud to say that our company, SevenRooms, stepped up to the plate to be a resource for our partners. As the key revenue driver shifted overnight from in-service experiences to on-couch, in-home experiences, SevenRooms fast-tracked a product we were planning to release later in the year: Direct Delivery. This product enables restaurants to continue developing meaningful, direct relationships with guests through delivery, while saving them hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars PER DAY on third party delivery fees.

I felt satisfied knowing that my company was doing everything they could to help restaurants across the country who needed a solution NOW – not tomorrow, which was already too late. We rolled out the technology free for 90 days, giving our restaurant partners the tools they needed to execute on delivery, while supplying the relief they needed to their bottom lines.

But I knew there was more to be done.

While sitting outside on a crisp morning drinking coffee with my partner, he turned to me and said, “We have to help them today. They need cash now. How about we send a meal from your clients to some doctors in the ICU?”

Within a few hours, I had reached out to one of our clients, Elea on the Upper West Side in New York, sending one large delivery to feed the entire ICU at NY Presbyterian. Immediately, I felt a sense of purpose, urgency and relief. This global disaster, progressively getting worse by the minute, was an opportunity to show frontline workers that we were thinking about them through the most universal form of love and friendship: food.

We wanted to do this more. A lightbulb went off in both of our heads.

We thought, let’s raise money to support our devastated restaurant community, through nourishing the individuals who are putting their health and lives on the line to protect us and our loved ones. It’s a win-win. With his passion for access to healthcare, and my love and dedication for the hospitality industry, we knew this was a ‘dual donation’ strategy that would be impactful.

That day, we started a GoFundMe page and shared it with friends, family, colleagues and our ‘internetworks,’ raising over $10,000 in just 24 hours. At the time, the idea of that money going into the pockets of struggling clients and friends broke down any reservations and fears I had to make this much larger. We refreshed the GoFundMe page all day as the number of donations grew, looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, this is a thing.’

In the following week, we were connected through friends to people all over the country with the same idea in mind. One of the people in San Francisco said, ‘Let’s all come together. Let’s scale this and make it easy for people to come together with the support of a national brand.’ Just like that, Frontline Foods was born.

Within just a few days, there was a Slack channel created with brilliant, successful and motivated strangers added by the hour. A brand, logo, backend system, roles and goals – with multiple food deliveries happening every day to hospital workers in cities all over the U.S. Within two weeks of starting our GoFundMe, chapters all over the country were being born and brought together from mountainous Denver and beachside Miami, to the tech hubs of Silicon Valley and Seattle, all united by a common goal and purpose.

This initiative to me, and the many others who got involved, was about helping those restaurants who never had a business model that would allow them to be successful on a delivery-only model. This was not a volume game. It was not about making these upscale and fine dining restaurants crank out pasta by the pound for those looking for a quick, easy or cheap meal.

As excited as I was to be able to send food to people on the frontlines of this health crisis, I was even more passionate about being able to help restaurants. I was clear in my ask to our clients. We did not want a discount or a deal. We were willing to pay full price. I just wanted to know how much it would cost for them to hand-deliver between 30 and 200 individually wrapped meals to a hospital. Our team would take care of the bill and coordination.

And we did – continuing to scale this program at restaurants across the country who were grateful that someone was looking out for them when they needed a helping hand.

As anyone in the industry will tell you, you don’t go into hospitality for the money. In fact, it's almost impossible to find a restaurateur who got in the business to ‘make money.’ Contrary to popular belief, the 4x price on that bottle of wine or that $40 chicken is not price gouging. It is the cost to the restaurant – once you factor in rent, labor, insurance, and food costs – with, at most, a 1-2% margin of profits.

Instead, those restaurant owners, managers, hosts and chefs were there to create an experience for you. To see you laugh over a glass of wine with friends, to see you close your eyes in total bliss as you took a bite of the food they made with love. They were there for you when you needed a last-minute reservation, when you needed something spectacular for your partner’s birthday, and even when you sat up at the counter by yourself with a good book and your favorite dish.

It was time for someone to be there for them. And we’re doing everything we can to help.

As of Monday, May 18, our team at Frontline Foods has raised $7 million, partnering with José Andrés World Central Kitchen to be a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. This status helps us do more with every dollar donated, so we can help those that need it most.

Our ‘team of teams’ has come together from many disciplines across every industry and background. We’re tech leaders, hospitality mavens, healthcare pros, business entrepreneurs and more. We’re all united as one community to help those who have been there for many of our lives' most special moments, and for those days when an injury or illness has sidelined us. Frontline Foods exists to serve those who put their health and lives on the line to keep us healthy and nourished – doctors, nurses, restaurants, and delivery men and women on the frontline of this worsening crisis. By serving them, we’re serving the entire community.

I am equally proud to be a member of the SevenRooms team, and an organizer in the birth of Frontline Foods.

I’m proud of our company for stepping up when our restaurant partners needed it most – giving them a commission-free, direct delivery solution that is helping them build relationships with guests, drive more revenue, and most importantly, save them 20-30% on fees from third party delivery platforms.

I couldn’t be more thankful for the talented people who have stepped up to the plate on both a local and national level to help drive Frontline Food forward – many who have been furloughed from their own jobs and who are now throwing themselves wholly into supporting the organization. Many of these people have never met, and many may not ever have the opportunity to meet in person. However, they’re united for a common cause. They inspire me every day to do better, be better, and push harder. It’s nothing short of inspiring, and I can’t wait for what’s ahead.

For those interested in getting involved with a local chapter, or looking to start their own chapter, please visit frontlinefoods.org. For restaurants who would like to participate in our program, please submit via this form.

About the Author

Ilana Brown is the Vice President of Customer Success at SevenRooms, where she is responsible for the success and retention of the company’s global client base. She is also the co-founder of Frontline Foods. Prior to joining SevenRooms, she worked at companies including StellaService, CareDox, Lot18 and Bluewolf in various account management roles. Ilana received her B.S. in Human Development & Business from the University of Rhode Island College of Business Administration.

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