Coronavirus is contagious, but so is compassion

How Catering by the Family helped feed the Tampa Bay area during the pandemic.

As the economy grounded to a halt, many food-orientated businesses pivoted toward community service. Finding ways to feed hospital staff, people who lost their jobs and kids who suddenly couldn’t count on meals at school, all while offering take-out and delivery to keep some crucial cash coming in. Catering by the Family, in Tampa, was one of the first to jump in and help.

“When this thing first hit I heard about kids, out of school, who couldn’t get food,” explained president Steve Gonzalez. “Kids are our future and they don’t understand what’s going on. We needed to help.”

At the end of March, the company gave away 100 pans of pasta, with a choice of meat or meatless sauce. The food was distributed on a first-come, first-served, basis out of the company’s 17,500 square-foot facility on Cypress Street in Tampa.

“The community has been there for us for 42 years and we want to be there for them,” Gonzalez says. “All my life I’ve followed my passion for food, and it’s been really [fulfilling] when people come through and thank us for the food.”

Earlier in March, Gonzalez and employees delivered free hot meals and sandwiches to first responders at the Tampa Police Department, the emergency operations center in Ybor City and Tampa Fire Rescue. They also donated 150 meals to the Carrollwood Food Pantry.

The company hosted a blood drive after hearing about the critical need for blood. They passed out flyers and had a steady stream of donors passing through the mobile bloodmobile parked outside their facility.

Normally, Catering by the Family averages eight to 12 weddings every weekend and six to 12 office dropoffs per week. All of that business went away, forcing the company to lay off 60 percent of its workforce.

“It’s very heartbreaking because we are a family here,” Gonzalez says. “This isn’t an eight-hour-a-day business. We spend more time here than we do at home. We waited as long as we could, but financially we couldn’t keep everyone working.”

Gonzalez is a Tampa-native who started the business in 1976 as The Family Sandwich Shoppe. That shop was a huge hit and went on to win the Tampa Tribune Cuban Sandwich Contest in 1976, 1977 and 1979.

He expanded the business into catering in 1982 and again, saw great success. Catering by the Family was named Best Caterer in 2019 in the Best of the Best People’s Choice Awards presented by the Tampa Bay Times. It is also the official caterer of Gasparilla, the River Center at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and many wedding venues across the region.

Today, along with his son Steve Gonzalez Jr., who is the executive chef, and a handful of employees Gonzalez is keeping his business open. They’ve created a special menu of family favorite meals, including lunch and dinner options, that are available for pickup and delivery. Many of the meals are freezer-friendly so families can stock up.

When asked about the future of Catering by the Family, Gonzalez is optimistic. “I’m sure the food business will come back. We will beat this. We’re staying open for business and I can’t imagine us ever closing.”

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