When COVID-19 hit, LA restaurant consultant Ramzi Budayr teamed up with chef Tyler Curtis to launch FEW For All, a pasta delivery service with a philanthropic bend.
In the weeks since, the pair, along with former Hoxton pastry chef Mallory Cayon, has expanded its operation to include sauce, cookie dough, cinnamon buns and even an immersive restaurant-at-home experience.
Up to this point, FEW For All (Flour, Eggs and Water For All) has donated 3,500 pounds of pasta to the LA Food Bank, and as orders ramp up, contributions increase. Using a matching donation model, the company gives 1 pound of pasta for every menu item purchased.
Recently, its three-course meal kit, Table 60, earned glowing reviews. This is a lot to accomplish in less than two months. But for hospitality veterans like Budayr, urgency and resiliency are second nature. As he puts it, “We were trained to get out of the weeds,” or not fall behind during service.
Since founding FEW For All, Budayr has transformed his mode of enacting hospitality. Where he used to present expertly plated food in a bustling dining room, he now sells prepared components from a delivery van. Although the scenery has changed, Budayr’s intent has not.
Restaurants “are a vehicle through which we exchange emotional currency,” Budayr said.
“What we sell is not just pasta and sauce and cookie dough; we sell comfort. We sell a moment that a person can either share with their loved ones at home, or, if they’re alone at home, they’re sharing with their community because they know the product exists to support those in need. So, every time someone takes a bite of our product, they’re that much more connected to their neighbors.”
In the wake of being furloughed from his position as chef de cuisine at the Hoxton Hotel in LA, co-founder Tyler Curtis and Budayr conceived of FEW For All to help them cope with anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis. The two met at the NoMad Restaurant in Downtown LA, where Budayr was the general manager and Curtis was a sous chef.
Budayr and Curtis needed a project to occupy their time and stay afloat financially, to keep from “staring into the abyss.” More importantly, they wanted to give back. The two started making fresh pasta and sauce, working primarily out of a small commissary kitchen attached to Curtis’ apartment building, and advertising sales on Instagram. They decided to partner with the LA Food Bank because of its wide network of distribution channels.
“We didn’t feel super comfortable picking one hospital or one (organization). ... Everybody needs stuff right now,” Budayr said.
At first, the pair was donating the same handmade product that was available for purchase, but early on in the pandemic, the food bank’s policy changed due to safety concerns. Through their former purveyor, Budayr and Curtis sourced a high-quality pasta that was packaged and sealed in line with the new regulations. The decrease in production demand simultaneously increased their donation capacity. They had given a quart of fresh pasta for the same amount purchased. Now they could contribute a pound of dried pasta for every menu item someone bought.
In addition to its work with the food bank, FEW For All collaborates with No Us Without You to provide meal kits to undocumented workers. Because many restaurant workers lack the legal status to qualify for unemployment benefits, this has been especially important to the founders.
Curtis produces regular and gluten-free rigatoni, as well as lumache (Budayr’s favorite because of how it traps sauce), spicy pomodoro sauce and pesto cheese fonduta. Clients order delivery via Instagram DM, for themselves or as a care package for a friend. Two weeks in, FEW For All added cookie dough to its menu, bringing on Cayon to make chocolate chunk and gluten-free peanut butter logs by the dozen.
The idea arose when Budayr’s local supermarket ran out of cookie dough, his “emotional eating food.”
In addition to rounding out the menu selection, Budayr said Cayon provides balance and stability to the team’s sometimes breakneck attitude.
“Mallory is very good at systems and also at keeping an even-keeled approach,” Budayr said. “With Tyler and I basically living together for a month and doing this 16 hours a day, we started to unravel. Going and picking up cookie dough from her house, even that alone, was like a moment of Zen. Like everything’s fine, she can crank out a hundred logs of cookie dough and never break a sweat, and that’s a nice reminder to just chill.”
The co-founders use their opposing skill sets—marketing and operations on Budayr’s end, and production on Curtis’—to check each other and provide a realistic perspective about what is feasible. But “any time we’re doubting ourselves, one is lifting the other one up. In some ways, he’s the optimist and the crazy one ... and in other ways I’m that person.”
The crucial fourth member of the team is AJ Juarez, a fellow NoMad alum, who drives the delivery van. Juarez’s value lies in more than his driving.
“He’s just the most easygoing, friendly guy,” Budayr said. “When we’re on the road and I make a mistake with an order, I go into service recovery mode. He cheers me on and reminds me it’s good to treat this like we’re in a restaurant.”
Friends and connections outside of the core crew have been a saving grace as well. As orders and production demand grew, the limitations of its workspace put increasing strain on the team. Just in time, a lifeline emerged: An ally at No Us Without You put FEW For All in touch with Cindi Thompson, who runs Crafted Kitchen in the Arts District.
Prior to the pandemic, Thompson had roughly 60 tenants renting commercial kitchen space for their culinary startups, but the health crisis has dropped that number to fewer than 20. Despite struggling to keep her space afloat, she offered Budayr and Curtis a free workspace because she believed in what they were doing.
FEW For All’s philosophy is fundamentally rooted in “enlightened hospitality,” a term coined by Danny Meyer. Meyer opened Eleven Madison Park, where Budayr got his start in the restaurant business, in 1998. He later sold it to Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, who opened the NoMad restaurants. Although Budayr left NoMad last year to pursue solo ventures, enlightened hospitality principles like putting the health and safety of the team before profits have continued to guide him.
Budayr daydreamed about being a chef during his childhood, but the expectation from his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, was that he would embark on a secure and lucrative career path. Still, he attributes the inspiration for this project to his father, who taught him to be generous.
After graduating from Boston University, Budayr moved back to New York to work in finance. Entering through the revolving door on his first visit to Eleven Madison Park, which was downstairs from his office, he heard a song he had listened to every day in college (Budayr also inherited his love of jazz from his father).
“I knew I was in the right place. ... I felt like I saw the matrix,” Budayr.
Soon after, Budayr walked downstairs to inquire about a position and was hired as a coat-check attendant. He quickly climbed through the ranks.
To Budayr, “food has never really been about food. It’s about the context.” This is evident in Table 60, FEW For All’s latest offering, which recently launched. Budayr describes it as a “build-your-own restaurant experience,” named in honor of the table where he ate his first meal at EMP. Replete with extras like a tablecloth, flowers, candles and a custom playlist, the three-course meal kit consists of antipasti, a pasta entree, market vegetable, bake-your-own chocolate lava cake, and a bottle of wine. Budayr hopes the service will foster a sense of surprise and delight, and also connection. He was thrilled when, during the course of their meal, two guests started messaging each other on Instagram, as if they were neighboring diners chatting in a restaurant.
Amidst grueling workdays and an uncertain future, seeing FEW’s impact firsthand buoys the team’s spirits. A former chef who is housing two families in her home was one of the organization’s first clients. Lacking the means to provide food for so many people, she reached out to FEW For All.
“Just knowing that we’re able to be part of her weekly routine and her life, being part of nourishing her family, it gets us amped,” Budayr said.
Budayr doesn’t know if there’s a future for FEW For All beyond the stay-at-home orders. He doesn’t know what his next steps will be or whether he’ll be able to find investors for his restaurant project when all this is over.
He is, however, sure of one thing: “I want every endeavor that I commit to from now on to have a community or social responsibility element. I cannot tell you how much more fluid and how much more joyful the work is for me, knowing that I’m able to contribute to my community. I knew that intellectually, but it didn’t really resonate with me until our first drop at the food bank. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is really beautiful work.’”