PATERSON, NJ - As New Jersey continues to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, one local restaurant owner is doing whatever he can to try and keep his community’s spirits up.
Giving back to his hometown has always been important to Shane Gerald, a former healthcare worker for two decades and one-time recipient of Paterson’s Key to the City for his work as founder and coach of the NJ Sparks youth basketball club.
So, when he opened the Fast Break Café about a month ago, Gerald sought to make it “a community-based place” for those who live and work in the city, giving them an affordable option to delicious, kid-friendly comfort food.
His Vreeland Avenue eatery, which offers take-out and delivery, was quickly becoming a popular spot for students and teachers to grab a bite before or after school and for families seeking good meals. “We serve American food – cheesesteaks, hamburgers, chicken, hot dogs, French fries, onion rings,” Gerald said.
“It’s all the good stuff that’s bad for you,” he joked. “It’s affordable and it’s fun. It’s not McDonald’s – it’s fresh made food that’s quick. Kids love it and parents love it. And it’s a community-based café about Paterson.”
Besides half-price meals for children and special weekend deals for Little League players, Fast Break Café also gave local teens job opportunities so they could gain workplace experience, Gerald said.
The 47-year-old told TAPinto Paterson he’s always enjoyed cooking and once dreamed of running his own food truck, however, finding the time to do it in between work and coaching was too hard.
Now that he’s retired from his medical career, which included four years as an emergency room technician and 20 years as an operating room technician, Gerald is making a go of it as a restaurateur. “My goal from the beginning was to be a community-based place. We’re all about the community and children,” Gerard said.
Then, just as his business was ramping up, New Jersey ordered all restaurants to shut down dining rooms and only permitted take-out and delivery services. Over the past few weeks, many restaurants have reduced hours of operation, laid off staff and even closed outright as the state attempts to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Instead of shutting his doors, Gerald reinvented how he can continue his mission of giving back. And with the help of his family and support from the community, Fast Break Café remains a place to catch a “fast break.”
“It’s a crazy time we’re living in, but if we all help each other out, things will be ok,” he said.
Shortly after opening on Tuesday morning, Gerald was finalizing plans for his next free meal event for local first responders.
The lunch, which is a collaboration with several churches including Holy Tabernacle Apostolic Church, Resurrection Kingdom Ministries and Urban Life Ministry, will be available each Wednesday.
Since launching the offering last week, Fast Break Café has served nearly 200 meals to cops, firefighters, healthcare workers, sanitation workers and department of public works employees.
Gerald plans to offer free meals for essential workers for as long as the pandemic rages.
“For me, being in the health field for so long, I understand the risk these workers are taking every day,” he said. “I know the risks and fears they are experiencing, and they are doing it every day.”
Gerald, who has two daughters that are first responders, Shayna, a police officer, and Sierra, a healthcare worker, added: “It’s a very scary time for all and we want to show first responders the strong appreciation we have for them.”
Reiterating his call for residents to stay at home so that efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus can be most successful, Kyle Hughes, president of Paterson FMBA Local 2, added his appreciation to Gerald for his support.
“The support of the community has been incredible. The meals that Gerald prepares for the men and women of our Department means a lot,” Hughes said. “It’s not only the great food that fuels us, but also the positive energy and the thought behind it.”
Gerald said the café is also working with the churches to provide free lunches to seniors and children in need of assistance.
“I still want to help the community while we’re weathering the storm. For me, that’s the biggest part,” he said.
Gerald said his heart also goes out to the local children who are missing out on spring activities and sports programs now that schools are closed indefinitely due to COVID-19. As the parent of a daughter who is in her senior year, Gerard said it’s been tough for kids since milestone events like proms and graduations “are up in the air right now.”
“For a lot of younger kids, they look forward to spring sports and for many high school kids those seasons are a chance to showcase their skills to get scholarships,” he said. “It’s tough for all kids.”
Due to the ongoing, state-mandated shutdown, New Jersey’s small business community has taken a hit. In recent weeks, many businesses have conducted lay-offs or implemented furloughs in an attempt to stay afloat.
For the week ending March 28, a record 206,253 unemployment claims were filed in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The hardest-hit industries are food services, which represents 16.5 percent of claims filed.
At Fast Break Café, Gerald said he hasn’t had to lay anyone off “because it’s a family business.”
“My nephews, my wife and my children – we are all just pulling together and making it work. We’re all on the same page and no one is complaining,” he said. But, along Vreeland Avenue, Gerald said he has many friends who run their own businesses that are struggling.
“I know barbers and salons on the same strip and it’s a hard time for everyone,” he said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to open and provide a service to the community.”
“We’ve never experienced anything like this in America before. But I count my blessings every day that we are still getting support from the community and love from surrounding areas. Hopefully this thing passes quickly.”
First Responders Lunch
Where: Fast Break Café, 168 Vreeland Avenue, Paterson
When: Wednesdays, Noon to closing time
Open To: Firefighters, EMTs, Nurses, Doctors, Police Officers, DPW Workers, Sanitation Workers, Corrections Officers
Meal Options: Wing combo, chicken finger combo, cheeseburger combo, hot dog combo. (Each meal comes with a drink and French fries)
What To Know: Call 973-553-1344 to order. First responders should bring identification or wear their uniform to pick-up their food.
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