The other day, Derek Berkes read something powerful on social media.
“It said, ‘If we get to the other side of this, and we don’t change, that will be our biggest loss,’” Berkes says.
He kept reading that line, over and over again, and the truth of it resonated with him.
Not only do businesses need to adapt to roll with the punches of COVID-19—and fast—but also, this crisis has something critical to teach us if we want to come out on the other side of it stronger.
We can’t keep doing business as usual. We can’t keep working for our own best interests. We need to collaborate and support one another instead. Why? Because we’re all connected.
“We live in the same community, the same zip code, the same planet, even,” Berkes says. “We’ve got to stop looking for differences, because if we want this to work, then we’re going to have to work together.”
It’s this spirit of collaboration and adaptability that has been driving Berkes’s life for the past few weeks, waking him up at 5 a.m. to start working and keeping him on the job until 9 p.m.
For years, his business Waiter on the Way has been a fixture in downtown Fort Wayne. Think of it as a local precursor to UberEats, offering online and by-phone food delivery service to bridge the gap between restaurants and consumers.
So when COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the downtown dining scene, Waiter on the Way started working with the Downtown Improvement District to make a difference—offering free carryout service to consumers who order from any downtown restaurants.
As a result, Berkes’s business has been booming, and the downtown restaurants—many of which are small, local operations—are able to keep their kitchens open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Galbraith, Executive Director of the Downtown Improvement District, says the plan for free carry out service was hatched by members of his team, Crissy Moloney and Stephen Bailey, thinking creatively in a time of crisis.
It was designed to provide a win-win solution: Driving business to Waiter on the Way and incentivizing consumers to support downtown restaurants at the same time. As such, the DID reallocated some of its advertising dollars to cover $5 of Waiter on the Way’s flat $5.99 carry out fee for downtown restaurants instead. Then Burkes's business donated the remaining dollar to seal the deal.
Since the partnership began March 19, Burke’s phone has been ringing off the hook, boosting his business to downtown restaurants by an estimated 150 percent.
Galbraith says the collaboration has been a smart investment for the DID, too.
“This is really the definition of what you keep emergency funds for,” he says. “Restaurants had to lay off their serving staff, but if they can keep their kitchen staff working, and if they can keep some cash flow going, that’s one of the few hopes they have for staying in business for once this is over.”
Galbraith took office as Executive Director of the DID in November, inheriting the growth that the 99 blocks of downtown enjoyed in recent years under Bill Brown’s leadership. Now, Galbraith is concerned for the brave small businesses that have taken a chance on downtown, not knowing what will become of them when the COVID-19 shutdown is over.
“Anytime you get entrepreneurs and people who open independent restaurants and stores, they’re risking a lot of their own capital and time; they’re not paying themselves much; if they have a hiccup in the cash flow, that affects them tremendously,” Galbraith says. “If they’ve got one store with three or four or five employees, the margins of those businesses are very thin. This has thrown up a roadblock that has knocked everybody back.”
In addition to supporting the restaurant scene, the DID is finding ways to support downtown shops, too, offering contests and promotions on social media.
As for its Waiter on the Way promotion, 375 free delivery codes were cashed in during the first week alone. Another unexpected aspect of the collaboration has been the number of new delivery jobs it’s created to re-employ local people.
Berkes says on a typical Friday night, Waiter on the Way staffs about five people in its downtown office and 30 delivery drivers.
Last Friday—the second Friday of the COVID-19 shutdown—it staffed at least seven employees in the office and put 45 drivers on the road.
“And that’s still not enough,” Berkes says.
He’s onboarding four new delivery drivers the day after this interview, and he’ll probably need to hire more, he says. Truth be told, he doesn’t even know how many new employees he’s brought on in the past few weeks.
Since Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay home order for the state on March 23, Waiter on the Way has still been making deliveries from downtown restaurants that remain open; they’re just taking extra precautions to stay safe, Berkes says.
Drivers are often wearing gloves and masks, and the office staff is constantly wiping down equipment. As the orders keep coming in, everyone is staying busy and working overtime.
Berkes says about 15 new restaurants have been added to Waiter on the Way’s delivery roster, and he’s been working with restaurants that haven’t done carry out before to get them acclimated to the system quickly.
“Everyone’s trying to do as much as they can because there’s so much uncertainty right now,” he says. “Every order makes a difference.”
While the DID’s partnership has been a boon to his business, he’s trying to funnel that support to his restaurant partners, too.
For instance, while Waiter on the Way used to only accept tips for its delivery drivers, it has added a feature on its website for patrons to tip restaurants directly for their service.
Berkes says a lot of customers are taking advantage of that option and leaving nice notes for the restaurants and delivery staff, too.
“Typically, in the service industry you don’t hear from people unless something is wrong,” he says. “But this is cool.”
While his partnership with the DID ends after April 16, he hopes that additional partnerships can be developed with other businesses and corporations to keep the momentum going as long as local restaurants are offering carry out.
In addition to the DID’s partnership, he’s seen an influx of companies purchasing Waiter on the Way's gift cards in bulk for their staff as a way to support them during this unusual time, as well.
“To me, that is powerful,” Berkes says. “That’s somebody trying to do something for the next person.”
It’s acts of kindness like these that give him hope for Fort Wayne’s future and prove that residents are willing to lend each other a helping hand.
After all, when COVID-19 subsides, nothing will ever be the same again; and perhaps nothing should.
“It’s not enough to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Berkes says. “We’ve got to ask: What can I do today to make a difference for somebody somehow? And maybe it’s small, but it could be huge to somebody else. Everybody can do something. Don’t underestimate the power of one random act of kindness. The community of Fort Wayne has transformed tremendously the last five to 10 years. My biggest fear with this pandemic is that we lose momentum. I don’t want to see Fort Wayne be less than what we were before; I want to see us hit the ground running as fast as we can. Let’s pull together and make it happen for each other.”
Waiter on the Way is offering free delivery service to all downtown Fort Wayne restaurants that are still open during COVID-19. The promotion lasts March 19-April 16, 2020. It also offers free delivery service from its Restaurants of the Month if you spend $25 or more on food. Check its website for details.