Restaurant owner Gabriel Gavilan explained the initiative comes through a program with the James Beard Foundation, a culinary nonprofit that is working to support the food service industry amid economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many people don’t have a job right now, but they still have to eat,” said Gavilan. “At least they can have a free meal here.”
The James Beard Foundation has provided Gavilan with six weeks of payroll funds. In turn, the restaurant is giving out a selection of Peruvian-style rotisserie chicken accompanied by sides of rice, beans, salad and french fries to feed the neighborhood.
Gavilan’s goal is to distribute a total of 2,000 free meals by the end of the program.
Gavilan, who lived in Woodhaven for 14 years, says the pandemic has been extremely tough on his business, which has been a part of the neighborhood since the first Mistura Peruana location opened up nearly 10 years ago.
He made the difficult decision to close both restaurants on March 15, unable to procure the proper supplies, such as face masks and hand sanitizer, needed to keep customers and employees safe.
The restaurants opened their doors again in late May, with two months of piled up rent and utility bills from both storefronts looming over Gavilan.
“When we reopened the business it was like starting back from zero again,” he said. “So many people thought we went out of business.”
To make matters worse, both restaurant locations did not qualify for outdoor dining permits due to fire hydrants situated in front of the buildings, so Gavilan had to rely solely on takeout and delivery for revenue.
Gavilan says he went from eight employees pre-pandemic to just three when the restaurants reopened. Through the program with the James Beard Foundation, he has been able to employ two more workers, at least for six weeks.
It means everything to Gavilan to be able to support his employees, who he considers “family,” through hard times.
When he first moved from Peru to New York in 1996, Gavilan worked as a dishwasher in restaurants. Over the years he learned the ins and outs of the food service industry before finally taking the leap to open his own restaurant.
In the future, his dream is to eventually franchise his business, encouraging his workers to open up their own Mistura Peruana locations across the city.
For right now, however, Gavilan is focused on navigating the ever-changing landscape of a Queens in crisis.
“I can’t believe myself that we are still open, but I have the courage to go on,” he explained. “If I have to wash dishes again, I'm doing it. If I have to do deliveries, I will.”