When a friend of Ryan Sarver asked their mutual friend, Sydney Gressel, a pediatric nurse who was in the middle of preparations and training for the coronavirus, what he could do to help and support those working at the hospital, her suggestion was simple. A pizza party.
Sarver jumped at the chance to not only support the nurses but also the local restaurants in San Francisco.
“I called up a friend at a local pizza place near the hospital and had them make 20 pizzas and deliver them to the hospital,” said Sarver, who graduated from Cranbrook Schools in 1998, and is a descendant of the Booth family, Cranbrook's founders. “The restaurateur was ecstatic and the nurses and doctors were ecstatic.”
Since the first night had been such a success, they decided to do a second, this time with local chef Chris Cosentino, who won Top Chef Masters, and had done emergency/disaster food prep before. Cosentino gave Sarver a list of guidelines with everything he knew regarding food protocols.
After that, a spreadsheet was made matching different hospitals with the 10 restaurants they planned to work with. Then, a tweet was sent from Sarver’s account asking if people wanted to sponsor meals that would be sent to local hospitals.
“At the time, it wasn't really donations. We weren't receiving money. We would just connect the restaurant to the donor, the restaurant would go prep all the food and the donor would Venmo money to the restaurant,” said Sarver, who has lived in California for the last decade. “It started out really, really easy and really simple.”
Within that first 48 hours, Frontline Foods had over $200,000 worth of pledges or people who said they would donate. By the end of the week they had almost $500,000.
The momentum continue to grow – and it grew quickly.
Soon Frontline Foods was being asked by cities all across the U.S. how they could do this, including in southeast Michigan. Over the course of three months, they went from 10 to 55 cities across the country, with all volunteers, using Frontline Foods guidelines to do their own version. In that same timespan they ended up raising over $10 million and gained endorsements from celebrities like Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, who went on to discuss Frontline Foods’ work on daytime and nighttime talk shows.
This isn’t the first time Sarver has seen something take off like that. He was one of the first hires at Twitter in 2009 – he thinks he was the 30th member to join the team. Sarver served as Twitter’s Director of Platform until 2013, when he joined Redpoint Ventures as a partner.
“I saw Twitter go from a really small company to a really big one and it reminded me a lot of that same thing, where this idea that caught people's attention, and had its own momentum,” he said.
Much like when Twitter grew from 30 to 3,000 employees, Frontline Foods isn’t working alone anymore. As of July, they had joined World Central Kitchen (WCK), celebrity chef José Andrés’ non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, which they had been working with throughout. They’ll now be operating as a national extension of WCK’s core mission and programs, and have expanded outside just hospitals. Frontline Foods has also expanded to helping other communities, including homeless and senior centers, which have been heavily impacted by coronavirus.
“You get this kind of dual sided benefit of helping the local ecosystem, which is having its own problems in terms of financial aid, but also be able to produce food for the people that need it,” Sarver said.