People Doing Good - Steven Yeng

OB Noodle House owner Steve Yeng (right) has pledged $500,000 to the Bartenders Emergency Relief Assistance Program

Steve Yeng is heavily into peanut butter. He and his former staff at O.B. Noodle house created one of the city’s most raved about shots—Jameson and peanut butter. Tastes like a spiked milkshake. You could drink two or three of them despite most life advice. On the success of that shot, he and his wife Brittany created and bottled a version of it called Skrewball. It’s been hugely successful, available in all 50 U.S. states, and is one of the fastest growing alcohol brands in the country. 

Yeng sold O.B. Noodle House to his brother to fund the launch of Skrewball. Though he's no longer in the restaurant business, Yeng is still peanut butter adjacent. He's got 5,000 jars of the stuff and is in a position to help. He’s also got cans of lentil soups, bread, corned beef, chicken noodle soup, spaghetti noodles, tomato sauce, about 400 rolls of toilet paper. He and friends are putting together 5,000 care packages they’ll deliver on Friday to anyone in the San Diego hospitality industry who needs help (email info@skrewballwhiskey.com).

“This is for the dishwashers and cooks and bussers who work their butts off for us for not a lot of money,” he says. “My family came from nothing. We lived in refugee camps for six years and as kids my brother and I went dumpster diving. So we’ve been on the other side of random acts of kindness. And now I’m lucky to be in this position.”

The bigger news is that Yeng's partners in Skrewball, Infinium Spirits, have allowed him to divert the company's marketing budget to help U.S. bartenders who are out of work due to the coronavirus. Infinium and Yeng have pledged to donate up to $500,000 to the “Bartender’s Emergency Relief Assistance Program” from the US Bartenders' Guild—a dollar for each time an Instagram user shares this post on their page. (Note: This will be distributed to bartenders nationally, not just San Diego).

This is all happening because, in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, full-service restaurants in San Diego have been ordered to close on-site dining spaces and only offer takeout or drive-thru service for at least two weeks (tentatively ending March 31). Many restaurants have shuttered altogether. Some in the industry will have the financial largesse to weather this. Some won’t. And most owners I talk to are pointing to the people who need help the most—the employees, many of whom work for low pay. As of 2018, the California Restaurant Association were 76,201 restaurants in California, providing over 1.8 million jobs (11 percent of employment in the state).

I’ve been flooded with stories of people helping out.

“If there’s any good news to come out of it, can it be the amazing [locals] who came in and were tipping the staff $200?” says Anne Marie Coulon, co-owner and chef of Little Lion in Ocean Beach. “And these aren’t well-to-do people or people who seem well-to-do. They’re just people.”

“On our last night, customers were tipping servers $700,” says chef Brian Malarkey. He and partner Chris Puffer opened up the pantries of all their restaurants—Herb & Wood, Herb & Sea, Animae, Farmer & The Seahorse, Herb & Eatery—and let staff take home all of the food. Many, many restaurants are doing this.

Consortium Holdings—one of the largest restaurant groups in San Diego—has set up a “CH Projects Staff Relief Fund,” selling gift cards to their restaurants, promising 100 percent of the proceeds to their now unemployed staff.

At Flying Pig in Oceanside, owners Roddy and Aaron Browning have set up a relief fund for their employees, seeding it with $500. For every dollar someone donates, they'll receive 50 cents in gift cards (donate $500, get a $250 gift card to the Pig). 

Harrah’s Rincon has donated over 8,000 pounds of produce and refrigerated items to the San Diego Food Bank as well as 805 pounds to The Foundry Escondido.

Cesarina in Point Loma is giving employees 100% of profits from takeout and delivery services, alongside the hourly wages they get from taking those orders and making those deliveries. Urban Kitchen Group (Cucina Urbana, Cucina Sorella, Cucina Enoteca) is providing their employees with free to-go meals full of pastas and pizzas and other items every other day (plus kids menu items for employees with kids).

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone is helping everyone. Even the people with very little to give are giving what they can. 

The biggest recommendation to help these restaurateurs and workers is to buy gift certificates for the eventual “Corona is Dead” dinner party you’ll host when this is all over. Buy their t-shirts and mugs and merchandise online. 

“There is so much negativity in the news right now,” says Yeng. “Screw COVID-19, spread kindness. Kindness is contagious. Let’s turn this into a good thing.”

These are just some of the stories. If you’ve got stories of good people doing good things, please get in touch. Email me at tjohnson@sdmag.com.

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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