Toronto

'We don't ask questions': Toronto restaurant giving free meals amid COVID-19 job cuts

Little India, a family business on Queen Street West, is trying to help people who've lost their jobs during the COVID-19 outbreak by giving out free meals to anyone in need.

Little India has been on Queen Street West since 1995

Staff at the Little India restaurant in downtown Toronto are giving free takeout meals to people in need. (Submitted by Sri Selvarasa)

A longtime family restaurant in Toronto is trying to help people who've lost their jobs during the COVID-19 outbreak by giving out free meals to anyone in need — no questions asked.    

Like many restaurants in Ontario, Little India is facing a major financial loss after stopping dine-in service to slow the pandemic's spread.

But when former customers started asking if they could eat now and pay later, the owners knew they had to pay it forward.

"We existed in this community for more than 20 years. This community gave us everything," said general manager Sri Selvarasa, who runs the restaurant with his three brothers. Their family business has been on Queen Street West since 1995.

"Whatever we are today, it's because of this community. And now it's time."

More than 70 people a day

Thousands of people are out of work during the pandemic, with non-essential services closed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Canada has seen 1.6 million employment insurance claims over the past eight or nine days, said Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Little India expected four or five people would come in for the free meals each day, said Selvarasa.

But when they started on Wednesday, 40 people came looking for help.

The next day, that number almost doubled, he said. Their post about the meals on Facebook has been shared more than 4,400 times.

'All they have to say: I need a meal'

The staff don't ask questions. You can come every day, twice a day, if you need to, said Selvarasa.

"All they have to say: I need a meal," he said. "We don't ask questions. Whoever feels they cannot afford... [for] any reason."

Little India, a restaurant on Queen Street West, opened in 1995. (Laura Howells/CBC)

The restaurant has no problem serving people until they run out of budget or food.

"Maybe they lost a job, maybe someone can't afford, maybe [they] didn't get a chance to stock up the groceries," said Selvarasa. "We don't want to ask. It's just a free meal."

Some people do share their stories, however — like one woman who had lost her serving job.

When they handed her the food, she was crying, said Selvarasa, she was so happy for the help.

Want to be 'on the right side'

The restaurant received a huge community response for their efforts, with many people commenting on social media and calling with appreciation. A couple of people have donated more than $100 and another man donated takeout boxes, he said. The restaurant has now added an option for people to donate the price of a free meal.

Restaurants across Canada are facing severe financial hardship and potential closures, after being ordered to stop dine-in service to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Little India had to cut serving staff due to the changes. But despite lost revenue, Selvarasa said they didn't want to lose the majority of their kitchen staff — it would be "heartbreaking."

Sri Selvarasa, the manager of Little India, runs the restaurant with his three brothers. (Submitted by Sri Selvarasa)

"We know we're going to lose anyway," he said.  Preparing free meals keeps also staff busy, he said.

"Whatever you have, you just deal with that ... Everyone is struggling."

This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation, he said, and they want to do the right thing.

"Things are going to get better," he said. "We just want to make sure that we were on the right side."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Howells is a multi-platform reporter and radio producer. She has worked for CBC in Toronto, Hamilton, Whitehorse, and St. John's. Send story ideas to laura.howells@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @LauraHowellsNL.

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