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'They’ll Never Go Hungry': West Palm Beach Restaurateur Provides Free Meals For Laid-Off Workers

Wilkine Brutus
Food donation boxes in front of Howleys Restaurant in West Palm Beach.

The new normal began on a somber evening in March.

When Rodney Mayo had to lay off more than 650 employees from his 17 restaurants and bars, following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order to suspend dine-in operations, he feared that many of his employees — which amounted to 1,800 families — would have trouble feeding themselves. And he was right.

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The next day, Mayo says he rehired a few staff members and turned his popular Howley’s Restaurant into a non-profit kitchen, providing free meals to laid-off employees and any cash-strapped person or family in the community.

Mayo said his kitchen fed thousands of people in that "mile-long line" on that first day.

“We were just surprised by the amount of people that needed a hot meal,” Mayo told WLRN. “And then that commission meeting was that Monday.”

A few days later, Mayo — owner of the Subculture Restaurant Group — made a passionate, teary-eyed plea to the city of West Palm Beach for help. A Palm Beach Post video, with over 42,000 views, shows the long-time West Palm Beach resident explaining the benefit of helping at-risk hospitality workers to Mayor Keith James and the City Commission.

In the video, Mayo expressed how he didn’t have answers for his employees but promised “they’ll never go hungry.”

“I was bombarded with questions. ‘What do we do?’ ‘Where do we go?’ ‘I have no money.’ And I had no answers for them — for the first time.”

The city pledged $12,000. And Mayo’s Subculture Restaurant Group partnered with local nonprofit Living Hungry to form Hospitality Helping Hands, which has been accepting public donations. Good samaritans are chipping in, too.

“We get donations of $5, $10. People swing by Howley’s, some just drop off cash, don't even leave a name or anything,” Mayo said.

Credit Wilkine Brutus / WLRN
Paper signs indicate where folks can park to pick up free meals at Howleys Restaurant in West Palm Beach

Mayo says Hospitality Helping Hands has served 160,000 free daily meals “in a little over a month,” and have given weekly groceries to more than five thousand families. The non-profit has expanded to seven locations from West Palm to Boca Raton, and recently partnered with Troy's Barbeque.

The demand for free meals remains high as the financial burden across the state continues. Is giving free meals financially sustainable?

“I still anticipate there being a huge need with the unemployment rate for people to get meals,” Mayo said. “So we don't have an end date. It's either when we run out of demand or we run out of funds to keep putting out the meals.”

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Palm Beach County joined Florida’s phase one plan to reopen the economy. As a test run, Mayo plans to open Kapow Noodle Bar in West Palm Beach and Dada in Delray Beach, both part of his Subculture Group.  

And as he reflects on the past few weeks, he now expresses a few concerns about where this is all headed.

“My concern is that the gradual reopening of the 25 percent, 50 percent is going to make all the restaurants and that industry struggle and kind of trickle along,” Mayo said.

He also has concernes about “people's willingness to go back into a public place” on a consistent basis.

“And if you kind of take that whole socializing out of the restaurant business, it's not the hospitality business anymore,” Mayo said. “It's just delivering food.”

How you can reach them: For more info on Hospitality Helping Hands operation at Howley’s Restaurant, go here or call 561-833-5691. They’re available seven days a week, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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