The Guatemalan restaurant serving free food amid COVID-19 crisis

By Emiliano Castro

Guatemala City, Apr 15 (efe-epa).- Just a few steps from the Guatemalan presidential palace and the seat of government in Guatemala City stands a long line of people waiting to get free food from a local restaurant.

Rayuela restaurant, located in the heart of the historic center of the capital, has begun its charity mission although it was going “bankrupt” due to the economic difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurant owner Byron Vásquez told EFE.

People lining up outside the restaurant receive a portion of rice and beans with eggs, as is most often the case, except for the days when they get rice with chicken or meat and even pasta.

Along with his partner and three Rayuela workers, Vásquez never imagined that this initiative would grow in four weeks from delivering free lunches to 20 people per day to 650 people, which was the case Sunday – the highest number recorded since the coronavirus crisis started.

Vásquez told EFE that the idea of supporting society, at least within its reach, began when Rayuela opened almost three years ago. They decided then that they were going to give a safe space to mothers who needed to breastfeed in addition to giving them a complimentary coffee or tea, as well as not charging for drinking water and allowing access to the toilet for those who need it.

With this restaurant, they have also helped people from evicted communities and have looked for people to donate clothes and school supplies for them.

The idea of giving free food prepared from the menu to those in need came with an initiative called “Pending Cafe,” in which customers “pay for three coffees in advance and with that extra money they help us to give food to the people who need it.”

The COVID-19 epidemic in the country forced the restaurant to close and to offer only takeaway menus, but even so they decided to launch a call for donations in order to continue with its charity project.

On Mar. 13, the Guatemalan government confirmed the first positive case of coronavirus in the country and three days later implemented some containment measures as well as suspending public transport. A week later, an evening curfew was declared, which has helped prevent the virus from spreading too fast, but the country still faces an unprecedented crisis as others do.

The restaurant continued its social work, reaching “35 (free diners) on the first day, but the word spread and then 85 came, then 150, until last Sunday we had 650 and 550 on Monday. So, we are open every day,” Vásquez said.

Despite facing bankruptcy, Rayuela retains the restaurant’s staff.

“We pay our three employees on a daily basis and did a shop at a supermarket for them at the beginning of this situation,” he said.

In addition to free food, Rayuela prepares atole (a traditional hot corn-based beverage) and beans in the morning, as well as sweet bread, which the restaurant gives out to people in need for free, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Now, “for example, we have managed to get people to open their houses. There is a network of people who are cooking from their homes. Many times we give them (the supplies for) what we are going to prepare each day and they take it away (to make) and that helps us a lot,” said Vásquez.

The owner of Rayuela has been surprised “by the detachment” shown by those donating, regardless of the amount, such as “those have deposited 25 quetzales ($3.25) or even those who pass by leaving 5 or 10 quetzales.”

Although Vásquez acknowledges having received criticism from the media or people who question whether they keep some donations to themselves or for using plastics to distribute food, the owner said “we know that we are trying to help people through this emergency and we also take into account any help and donations for eco-friendly dishes and utensils.”

As hunger increases each day in the vicinity of Rayuela restaurant, those interested in supporting its initiative also grow, while the confirmed coronavirus cases have reached 196 with five deaths, according to official data as of Wednesday.

In Guatemala, 60 percent of the 16 million inhabitants live in poverty and one in two children suffers from malnutrition, according to international organizations. EFE-EPA


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