The restaurant has received over $6000 in donations from customers so far, enabling them to give out more than a 100 free meals in a month.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US last year, a Virginia restaurant's customers stepped up to carry the establishment through tough times with generous donations. Now, over a year into the crisis that wreaked havoc on the global economy, the nearly 16-year staple has found a way to give back to the community in its own way. For the past few months, Perfectly Frank — a Norfolk hot dog and burger shop — has been running a free meal initiative to feed the community with meal donations from customers. The program, Franks for Friends, offers one free meal per day to anyone who needs one, no questions asked.
"Maybe COVID-19 hit them really hard, or they're in between jobs -- or maybe they're taking a meal for their neighbor," Tarah Morris, the owner of Perfectly Frank, told CNN. "We don't ask any questions." Anyone who needs a free meal can go to the restaurant, at 4408 Monarch Way on the Old Dominion University campus, pull a ticket off the Franks for Friends bulletin board, and exchange it for a menu item. The idea for the initiative began with a single donation, Morris revealed. Community donations decreased after the restaurant reopened to in-person dining, as people felt a sense of normalcy returning.
However, Perfectly Frank's staff — which are mainly college students from Old Dominion University — were struggling to make ends meet. A friend and longtime customer gifted $2000 to the restaurant, asking Morris to give $100 to each staff member and use the rest to feed the community. From there, Morris started a fund, allowing customers to pay forward a meal if they'd like to do so. The restaurant tries to keep the meals on the bulletin board different, offering hot dogs, salads, melts, and the most popular item — cheeseburgers. Free meal customers take their ticket to the register to redeem it for their order and choose a drink.
The initiative quickly took off with over 100 meals being given away within a month. "I had no idea that was going to happen," Morris said. "We began collecting meals faster than we were giving them away." It also made national news, which gave way to an overwhelming outpouring of goodwill from across the country. "It's been crazy," Morris told The Virginian Pilot. "People are calling from so many different places. People are friending me on Facebook — I don't know what they're looking for, there. I'm blown away... I'm trying to stay on top of it. I know I can't send a thank you card to everybody, but the people who mail in a card with a check and say all these nice things, I'm mailing thank you cards. I'm writing emails to people who email. I hope I don't miss anybody."
Morris revealed that she's received over $6000 in donations so far, with donation amounts ranging from a single dollar to hundreds. "I just got $500 from someone named Judy," Morris said. "That's all it says — Judy." One email from Miami, Florida, stood out from the rest. "He said, 'I live in Miami. I'm broke, I don't have money, but this hit really hard and I want to donate,'" she said. When the shop ran his card, it came back with insufficient funds. "He was embarrassed that he didn't have $10," Morris revealed. The Perfectly Frank employee who was on the phone with him donated $20 of their own in his name and thanked him for the support.
"That story was the most touching and it only involved $20," Morris said. "It's not even about the money. It's about people doing nice things for somebody." She revealed that although she'd initially wondered how long she'd be able to keep the free meal initiative going, the surplus of donated meals is so large now, she can't foresee an end. "I'm hoping it goes on forever," she said. "At the rate the donations are coming in, I feel like it'll never stop." To keep up with the overwhelming support, Morris is now broadening her reach by consulting local nonprofits — and is considering setting up a table outside her hot dog shop on Sunday afternoons when she's normally closed.
"Coming off of COVID and all the hardships -- we didn't know if we were even going to make it," she said. "We went from ground zero to as high as you can go. It's been very uplifting, very humbling. We know we're going to be OK."