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The Tandem Restaurant In Milwaukee Adapts To Meet The Needs Of Community During Pandemic

Caitlin Cullen sits at a table in a blue jean jacket on the patio of Tandem Restaurant
Caitlin Cullen
Caitlin Cullen
Caitlin Cullen, founder and owner of the Tandem.

All restaurants have had to adapt to the pandemic. For most, that looks like carryout and delivery, but for the Tandem restaurant in Milwaukee's Lindsay Heights neighborhood, the pandemic has flipped their world upside down. In fact, they’re not even cooking anymore, but serving as a distribution center to provide meals for people who are hungry and struggling with food insecurity. First through donations, then a grant from the World Central Kitchen, and now a contract with the city of Milwaukee, the Tandem is getting food to people who need it.

Throughout the week, restaurants from across the city bring hundreds of meals to the restaurant, where workers sort them by dietary restrictions and destination, and then deliver them throughout the city.

Chuck Littlejohn, an employee of the Tandem for almost four years, has seen his role change from dishwasher to deliveryman.

"A lot has changed, but we're still moving, we're still going. You can't let nothing stop you at a time like this. And that's the main thing — helping and keeping everybody OK," he says.

The mission of feeding hungry community members keeps Littlejohn and the rest of the Tandem's crew motivated.

Caitlin Cullen, founder and owner of the restaurant, says although the mission of the restaurant has shifted to food insecurity during the pandemic, the Tandem has always been a community-focused social enterprise.

"Cooking food, putting in a box and handing it to folks who are facing hunger is different, but I think we've always kind of been a part of that process. It just looks a lot different now," she says.

As fall turned to winter in Wisconsin, many restaurants were struggling to stay afloat and many people continued to struggle with food insecurity.

"We really wanted to make it work first and foremost for residents who needed food but weren't able to get out and about in the winter months," Cullen explains.

Although the Tandem's role in addressing food insecurity is temporary, Cullen says the need for this work will not go away after the pandemic.

"There should be a world, especially in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where it's winter six months out of the year, where someone who is food insecure and likely doesn't have access to transportation should be able to get those items delivered to their home," she says.

For Cullen, the pandemic has also laid bare some of the shortcomings of the food and restaurant economy.

"The way that we are compensating people is inappropriate and as an industry, it's just become so baked into how everything happens because the McDonald's and the Chipotles of the world artificially decrease the price of goods for folks," she says. "A lot has to change in terms of how much we charge for food and how much we pay our staff and really building in paid time off for sickness, and figuring out how to maybe get a health insurance policy for the staff."

Ben Binversie was a producer with WUWM's Lake Effect program.