The pay-it-forward initiative has kept service workers in Austin, Texas, fed and fueled.
BY KATRINA YENTCH
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Douglas Kuehn III
Among the small yet impactful forms of excitement during the era of COVID-19 has definitely been getting packages in the mail. One package that has continued to generate such excitement for many in Austin, Texas, has been Boxes of Love.
Like many restaurants and food businesses, Austin-based distributor Waterfall Gourmet Beverages was solving the problem of what to do with expiring product during the initial onset of COVID-19. As CEO Douglas Kuehn III watched his fellow patrons and friends experience furloughs to survive, he felt a desire to step up and do his part. “I put together a few boxes with goodies from my warehouse, called them ‘Boxes of Love,’ and asked my friends and family if they’d like to send any to people they knew who were going through a tough time,” explains Douglas.
Douglas received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, selling out his first batch within 15 minutes before adding another round of 1,600 boxes after that. The Boxes of Love get delivered to anyone in the service industry, from bartenders to baristas and servers, and come with a variety of nonperishable foods like packaged alternative milks, oatmeal, chips, and more goodies donated by community partners. A major supporter and alliance during this time has been with Austin Shift Meal, a nonprofit with a similar mission to feed service-industry workers during this time of economic crisis. Together, Boxes of Love and Austin Shift Meal have provided over 6,000 meals since they joined forces. “Being surrounded by individuals who hold the same passion is always exciting, but connecting over such a heartbreaking challenge was especially meaningful,” says Douglas.
The service industry is a humble one, with folks often apprehensive to accept help without working for it. “The people accepting the boxes or meals were hardworking people who were not used to needing help or charity,“ says Douglas. “I recall a social post from an embarrassed bartender asking for a $10 donation to his Venmo account to get food. There were so many people ready to help! I connected with him immediately and drove to his apartment the next day with a huge pay-it-forward Box of Love from a stranger and a $50 gift card to HEB (local grocery store).“ Overall, however, Douglas has described the response from recipients as “a brushfire effect.“ Countless folks have shared stories about single parenthood, anxiety, and grief, and have been relieved upon receiving the Boxes of Love.
A year has passed now since the onset of COVID-19, with added challenges arriving such as Austin’s power crisis this past February. Boxes of Love and Austin Shift Meal have continued to be that much more fervent in their meal distribution, and have also hosted giveaways in between deliveries. When asked how the past year has impacted the way his business will continue, Douglas answers: “COVID and the winter storm in Texas shined a light on the humanity and passion for community that has always been central to Waterfall Gourmet Beverages. Moving forward, that personal, human connection will only grow stronger, and our community will be prepared in a different way for the next crisis. WGB will continue to use our vendor and Austin business relationships to support those in need.“
To help continue distribution of Boxes of Love, you can make a donation to Austin Shift Meal here.