“I don’t think there are people at this point necessarily going hungry, but I thought food can maybe ease their worries a little bit, help take their mind off it,” he said.
Andrea Dayharsh, a furloughed federal employee, visited Brown’s pizzeria with a coworker when she heard the news.
“I was very touched by Mr. Brown’s generosity,” she said. “I was so happy when the waitress suggested we order large pizzas, so we could take some home for dinner. It was much more than what we were expecting. The day we visited, would have been our paydays, so we were just thrilled.”
She said she remembers similar offers during the 2013 shutdown, but they were all in the nation’s capital and she hadn’t found anything available for people working elsewhere.
“More importantly than my own free meal,” she said, “I’ve shared the information with my staff, who are paid less than me and are probably more in need of a good lunch or dinner.”
A Facebook user who saw Brown’s post commented: “As a federal employee that has to work without knowing when I will receive my next paycheck, I thank you. This shutdown has caused a lot of stress and uncertainty.”
Brown said he heard from multiple employees working at the Indianapolis International Airport — bot in air traffic control and airport security — who expressed similar worries.
“TSA has reached out a bunch of times,” he said, adding that he was also invited by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to tour the airport’s tower, see what they do “and bring a bunch of pizzas.”
Pizza for morale
Brown said the airport employees he talked to mentioned morale was really low as a “bunch of people were going into their third week with no paycheck.”
Marc Schneider with the Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center says there are 400 employees at the Indianapolis Air Traffic Control Center, including air traffic controllers, engineers, safety inspectors and training and support staff specialists.
One hundred of them are currently furloughed — and 300 are working without pay.
“As the shutdown continues, the stress of when and if they will be paid increases,” he said. “Frustration and uncertainties also continue to drive down morale.”
The offers they have received — including Brown’s — have “most definitely made an improvement to our morale,” Schneider said.
“Just knowing Americans are supporting the government employees is a breath of fresh air in this troublesome and difficult time,” he said.
Since then, Brown said he’s asked his fellow chefs and restaurateurs in the community to join in on the effort.
“[I received] two dozen responses from friends and colleagues in the industry,” he said. “So we’re going to start coordinating taking out food to Indianapolis International (Airport).”
“It’s easier than I think people realize to help a lot of people. It’s easy to mobilize people due to the internet,” Brown said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people have reached out to me with notes of appreciation.”
Brown said he got the idea to offer free meals to government employees affected by the shutdown from one of his role models, Chef José Andrés.
Andrés, and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen, has provided millions of hot meals to people
struck by disaster — his team helped feed victims of Hurricane Florence, first responders in the California wildfires and Puerto Ricans left with nothing after Hurricane Maria.
In December, he promised free sandwiches at any of his restaurants for all employees of the federal government.
“I thought, we could probably do that here in Indianapolis,” Brown said. “The beautiful thing about being a restaurateur, is that we’re already positioned to help. We’re in the business of hospitality, we’re in the business of being kind to strangers. That’s kind of what we do every day.”