Coronavirus: Florida restaurateur makes a passionate plea - we need help and fast

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

WEST PALM BEACH -- Last Friday was the worst day of Rodney Mayo’s life thanks to the coronavirus.

With state orders to close restaurants except for take-out, the life-long West Palm Beach resident, whose Subculture Group owns 17 restaurants and bars, laid off 650 employees.

By 4 a.m. Saturday, though, he had a plan: to turn his Howley’s restaurant at 4700 S Dixie Highway into a production line for free meals for hospitality employees, seniors and others laid off or otherwise squeezed financially by the coronavirus crisis. With a rehired kitchen staff and a small army of volunteers, Mayo’s effort provided more than 5,000 meals in its first three days.

On Monday, the city commission voted to bolster the effort, pledging $12,000 to keep it going. At the urging of commission members to authorize more, Mayor Keith James has directed the city lawyers to determine how to make that happen in the next few days.

Along with the businessman’s act of charity came a tearful alert to commissioners and Palm Beach County residents Monday: that the pandemic already has reached past TV newscasts, and “closed” signs on Clematis Street and South Dixie, to swiftly spread real desperation among workers, many with families to support. Just as terrifying, by Mayo’s telling: No help was on the way soon.

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The take-out model wouldn’t keep a restaurant afloat, he told commissioners. Restaurants that couldn’t serve had to close altogether, leaving employees with few options.

“I was bombarded with questions. ’What do we do?’ ’Where do we go?’ And, ’I have no money.’

“I had no answers for them, for the first time, and I just told them, ’I can’t promise you anything, because I don’t know what’s going on....’”

“As the hospitals are gearing up for the worst, who’s gearing up to feed these unemployed workers?” Mayo wondered.

“I had been speaking frequently with many of my fellow restaurateurs, to try and find out what they’re planning to take care of their staff. Not one had a plan.

“One told me that they’re sitting back for two weeks to see what the government does. I asked if they were providing food, at least. ’We’ll figure that out in two weeks,’ I was told.

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“These are friends of mine. I told them we got two of their laid-off employees yesterday at Howley’s to pick up free meals. And there was a long pause. I think that shocked them. They did not realize that the first day they were laid off, the second day they came to Howley’s for food.

“One of those laid-off workers, this lady, met me outside Howley's on Saturday. They asked me how this works, and they were very embarrassed because they had never in their life asked for free food. She showed me a pay stub to prove she worked in the hospitality industry, even though I never asked for it.

“She asked if she could possibly get two meals. I asked who the other one was for. She said one was for her and she said she had five children at home and a husband not working. And she knew it was only one meal per person.

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“And I said, ‘Of course. You can have as many as you like.’

“She broke down crying. I did, as well. She said she didn’t know where to go and what to do and asked me, ‘Where do I go, what am I supposed to do?’

“I said, all I know is apply for unemployment, food stamps....

“She said she’d been trying for days and the website’s been crashing all the time, which we experienced all day today with our staff, and they could not complete their application.

“A friend came over and saw both of us crying and offered to take her shopping at Publix. Three hundred dollars later, her refrigerator was stocked.”

Mayo estimated the Howley’s effort, dubbed Hospitality Helping Hands, or H3, had distributed 5,000 meals, including 2,500 to local charities and the elderly and 2,500 to laid-off workers and anyone who walked up.

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It started as a way to feel hospitality workers, but the volunteers couldn’t say no to anyone in need, he related. “Our volunteers were crushed. I saw the faces of the volunteers.”

Each meal costs $8 to create and distribute, he said. About $2.40 of that of goes for kitchen staff, another 95 cents for supplies, utensils and bags, and the rest for food costs.

He figures the group can provide 800 to 1,000 meals a day, as long as the money holds up.

They’ve received $6,500 in donations. Some friends have promised to give him $200 from every paycheck they get, he said.

“We will continue with or without any assistance from the government as long as we can. It might be a few days a week, we do not know,” he said.

He’d asked big restaurant groups to help but had no luck. “They all said, ’we’ll talk about it in two weeks.’”

Mayor Keith James said that, while the city’s initial $12,000 contribution to the program was modest, he hoped it would help spark contributions from private individuals.

In addition to the unemployed, the city has identified 500 low-income seniors in housing authority apartments who would be targeted to receive meals through the program, Assistant City Administrator Armando Fana said in response to a question from Commissioner Kelly Shoaf about “how we reach the unreachable.”

Hospitality Helping Hands is open at Howley’s seven days a week, 1p.m. to 6 p.m. Anyone wishing to contribute can visit its website,

This story originally published to, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.