Mandi Nelson began Austin Shift Meal to help feed out-of-work service-industry workers.
By Fiza Kuzhiyil, Photos courtesy of Austin Shift Meal
During the early stages of the pandemic, Mandi Nelson’s employer laid off half of her company…including her.
“I had never been unemployed in my life,” Nelson reveals. ”When the pandemic hit, I [had]just moved into a new home by myself. I took on the biggest mortgage of my life. My immediate response was just to shut down. [But] when I heard what my friend was doing in Houston, I was like, ‘This is gonna keep my mind occupied and keep me focused on doing something positive.’”
After losing her service-industry job at the beginning of the pandemic, Nelson began Austin Shift Meal in April 2020. Based on a similar project in Houston called Houston Shift Meal, Austin Shift Meal provides five meals a week for local service-industry workers who lost their jobs. Over the course of 18 months, Austin Shift Meal fed over 800 service workers and their families.
The Shift Meal
Typically, Nelson says, service employers feed workers before their shift. This meal became known as the “shift meal,” and along with losing their jobs, workers now had to make up these meals with their own money.
“It was just like a domino effect. Everyone I knew was constantly saying, ‘I’m shutting down my restaurant,’ or ‘I’m out of work,’ or ‘We’re getting hit hard with what’s going on,’” Nelson says. “I couldn’t just sit home and not do anything. Can at least try and feed people and help out that way. I see this need right now in the community. And I feel pretty confident with all the connections that I have in this industry that I can pull this off.”
She set up in a new restaurant each week, but always hosted outside due to COVID-19 concerns. Austin Shift Meal fundraised on one end to help pay restaurants for their out-of-work service. The organization helped those out of work who needed meals, but also absorbed shift meal costs for restaurants with COVID-19 budget constraints.
Everyone Showed Up
Nelson and her list of over 100 volunteers helped feed an average of 75 people and their families per week. For her, serving the workers and their families became a way for her to connect with her community.
“Everyone [showed]up with a bright smile, ready to help the community. It was such a special time,” Nelson says. “It helped me through this hard time. When you feel down and you’re around other people that are doing great things, [that]just makes you feel so much better, and giving back just makes you feel really good.”
Nelson has always loved working with people, proven by the fact that her professional background has always been in the hospitality business. At times, work and fun blend together, motivating Nelson to dive deeper into the industry.
“One of my very first jobs was in a restaurant waiting tables, and I bartended all through college and fell in love with wine,” Nelson shares. “I’m now working for a wine import company portfolio. I’ve always loved working and found that this industry is more fun than work. I’ve made so many incredible relationships over the years being in this industry. It’s incredible.”
They’re Doing the Best They Can
Nelson’s time in the service industry has offered her immense growth. As she travels the world in her new role, Nelson reveals working with that wine import company is her dream job.
“The people that are in this industry are in it because they love it. And they love the people,” she says. “So it’s good to be reminded of that and know that this group cares about each other. We may have our own rough moments, but we all see that there is a need for change, and there [are]incredible people out there that are working on that change.”
While Austin Shift Meal has no formal plans to continue operations, the organization still works to assess community needs. Over the past year, Nelson and her colleagues noticed a need for change within the industry after the pandemic further stressed many cracks that already lay within the system.
She calls for health benefits, paid time off and fair wages. With $2.13 as the minimum serving wage in Texas, servers can’t plan their life around their income. She also urges diners and people going out to be more understanding of delays due to understaffing.
“They might be just extremely short-staffed in the front of the house or in the back of the house,” Nelson says. “They’re doing the best they can right now. Your tips are helping them survive and take care of their family. Don’t short them on their [tips]because you maybe didn’t have the best experience you’ve ever had. Just be appreciative and hang in there with them. We’re gonna hang in there with you. But we’ve got to do this together.”