Fiona Gledhill, co-owner of Screamin’ Jay’s Hot Lunch, lived in New Orleans and worked in the restaurant business when Hurricane Katrina hit. She says she remembers how restaurants came together to feed people affected by the natural disaster, a crisis that was amplified by then-President George W. Bush’s inability to respond effectively.
Fifteen years later and with another Republican-led government unable to lead during a historic crisis, Gledhill says she thought she and her husband and co-owner, Jesse Gandy, should respond by feeding people who are in need of a meal. Since the start of the pandemic, the two have provided more than 3,000 meals to the unhoused and whoever else is in need of warm food.
Starting with hot lunches to the city’s emergency dispatch callers, Screamin’ Jay’s has been active during the pandemic providing hot lunches to unhoused people who were living at respite centers. When the respite centers were closed, the couple were about to refocus on their restaurant. Thanks to a grant from a statewide restaurant and lodging foundation, Gledhill and Gandy can continue to hand out free lunches, this time through FOOD For Lane County’s Dining Room.
When the pandemic forced the University of Oregon to go remote, Gledhill says the couple closed their sandwich cart located outside of Prince Lucien Hall as a way to encourage people to stay home.
The closing left Gandy and Gledhill with free time and extra product at their downtown Eugene kitchen. Back when the sandwich cart was getting started, they would hand out leftover sandwiches to friends and at homeless camps in west Eugene, Gledhill says. So in the first week of the pandemic, they handed out sandwiches in the community to stay busy while their shop was closed.
They first started providing lunches at emergency dispatch centers, which were essentially isolating workers at the office to protect them from being infected by COVID-19, Gledhill says. Screamin’ Jay’s also deployed their cart to local hospitals to feed frontline workers.
Later on, Screamin’ Jay’s was hired by the city of Eugene to bring sandwiches to the area’s respite centers that were intended to allow the unhoused to shelter-in-place.
“It was really cool to see how well organized it was and how communal it was,” Gledhill says. “On a sunny day in April, you’d have people helping each other work on their bikes.”
The city paid Screamin’ Jay’s $5 per sandwich for respite center deliveries. Gledhill says since they were buying such a high volume of ingredients, they were able to stretch it out to include dropping off sandwiches to the unofficial shelter-in-place campsites, such as a large camp at Washington-Jefferson Park.
While Gledhill and Gandy were busy with sandwich deliveries to respite centers and throughout the community, she says she found out about the grant that the Oregon Hospitality Foundation was offering for restaurants helping the community during the pandemic.
“That grant opened up right when the respite centers were ending,” she says. “We were like, ‘We want to get paid to get pass out free lunches to people all the time.’”
On July 15, the foundation announced Screamin’ Jay’s would receive $2,400 to continue the partnership with FOOD For Lane County’s Dining Room.
FFLC Executive Director Tom Mulhern tells Eugene Weekly that some days the Dining Room has hot meals and, at other times, sack lunches with sandwiches and other ready-to-eat items. The location currently serves around 200 meals a day, so Screamin’ Jay’s should cover about four days of lunches.
He adds that when local restaurants donate meals, it’s a big hit with guests and staff, pointing to monthly pizza delivery by a local Domino’s franchise.
Carrie Copeland, the nonprofit’s program and education director, says guests “love any deviation from the ‘normal meal.’”
“During COVID, it’s a quicker interaction, so anything special helps them feel cared about,” she adds.
The other $2,400 from Oregon Hospitality Foundation will be given as a matching fund, requiring the sandwich shop to fundraise on its own. Gledhill says they’re going to have a donation add-on spot on their website whenever a customer orders a sandwich — which can be any amount. She says she and Gandy want to get 1,000 more lunches out there from the donations
“It’s a cool high that you get from staying busy and doing something good,” she says. “When it was all over and we’re thinking about going back to work, it’s awesome that we got a call to keep handing out lunch.”
Screamin’ Jay’s Hot Lunch will reopen Thursday, Aug. 6, at its 460 Willamette Street location. For more information, visit QueenWich.com.