More than 300 of Sarasota County’s emergency workers sprang into action as Hurricane Irma pummeled southwestern Florida in September 2017. But when it came time for those workers to get fed, costs quickly began to add up. At $26 per person per meal, the total bill came to a hefty $130,000—and taxpayers were stuck paying for it.
County commission leaders couldn’t predict when the next natural disaster might strike, of course. But they knew they needed a plan that would guarantee a more affordable way of keeping emergency workers fueled. So they turned to the Sarasota branch of Metz Culinary Management. Sarasota County, the city of Sarasota, and nearby Manatee County entered into three-year partnerships with the contract dining operator, making Metz the primary vendor to provide meals for workers in the event of a disaster.
During Hurricane Irma, Sarasota County had worked with a local restaurant provide meals for responders. “And it was charging restaurant prices,” says Metz Vice President of Business Development Jack Brill. Thanks to their buying power, Metz was able to provide four meals per person at a cost of just $30.50 per day. (The fourth meal is a second dinner for responders working late into the night.)
Partnering with a large contract operator didn’t just curb meal costs. It also ensured that plans to feed first responders could be activated at a moment’s notice. Metz is one of the first local buyers to receive food from their distributor U.S. Foods, second only to the nearby hospital. “We’re at the top of the priority list for emergencies. We can place an order at 6 p.m. tonight and they’ll have it on our doorstep at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning,” Brill says. Metz’s culinary center has the capacity to prepare huge quantities of food in a short amount of time, too. The 20,000-square-foot facility includes dedicated production and packaging rooms, as well as a backup generator with 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel. There’s plenty of manpower, too. “Our staff is geared to do 5,000 meals a day, so it’s just a matter of changing directions,” Brill says.
Of course, being able to make thousands of meals fast isn’t helpful if road conditions are so bad that the food can’t be transported to the workers. To ensure meals can be delivered rapidly, Sarasota County agreed that Metz’s street will get cleared first during emergency situations. “That helps get our trucks in and out,” says Brill.
Metz’s emergency menus are planned in advance—and are designed to be hearty and satisfying. Breakfast is French toast, pancakes and omelets; lunch is chicken stew, chicken Parmigiana, vegetables and salad; dinner is pasta with meat sauce, roasted turkey, vegetable lasagna, mashed potatoes, vegetable and salad; late-night dinner is barbecued pork, meat loaf, jambalaya, baked beans, potatoes, rice, vegetables and salad. Cold deli sandwiches like ham, turkey, roast beef and Swiss are also available. “These are high-stress situations,” Brill says. “We wanted to do home-style food that would be filling for folks who would be working for 12 to 24 hours.” The meals are brought to the emergency site fully prepped, and Metz associates take care of serving. In the event of a mandatory lockdown, Metz staff will live and sleep at the site to ensure that workers can continue to be fed.
The plan with Sarasota and Manatee counties hasn’t needed to be activated yet. But providing food for large crowds during an emergency isn’t new to Metz. The operator has partnered with local Red Cross shelters for several years and even earned a community service award for its work. “With the shelters, we have to be very flexible,” Brill explains. “We might serve 1,500 meals for lunch, then the storm gets worse and it goes from 1,500 to 5,000.”
That level of preparedness has given county commissioners peace of mind. “It’s comforting to know that the feeding of emergency workers will be handled efficiently without the concern of depending on volunteers or county staff to prepare nutritious meals during those times of disaster,” says Manatee County Department of Public Safety Emergency Management Coordinator Joel Richmond.
Brill echoes that sentiment. “These are contracts you wish you never had to do. But if we’re going to do it, we want to provide a great value and take care of our responders.”