Winter 2021

Food networkers

How two Carlson School students kept restaurant kitchens cooking and frontline workers fed

Abdirahman Kahin (left), owner of Afro Deli, and Shannon Leach (right), Frontline Foods Twin Cities co-founder, hand out meals near the George Floyd Memorial on 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. Kahin saw his catering business dry up and his customer count drop by half as a result of COVID-19. He says his business was able to survive and keep 90 percent of its staff employed as a result of the partnership with Frontline Foods Twin Cities.
Courtesy Lizzy Ullyot

After the protests following the murder of George Floyd last May, Lizzy Ullyot and her husband decided to spend their day off helping with the cleanup near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and 38th Street in Minneapolis. Ullyot, who grew up near the area, couldn’t believe the devastation. “The area immediately surrounding the Chicago Ave. and East Lake St. intersection was unrecognizable. Some buildings were completely leveled, some were gutted, and a few were still smoldering. There was debris everywhere,” says Ullyot, who will earn her M.B.A. from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in 2021.

But amidst the destruction, she saw hope—volunteers working alongside business owners and residents, shoveling debris and boarding up windows. She also noticed there was no place for them to get a meal, as nearby restaurants were closed or destroyed.

Ullyot decided to do something about it. Earlier that spring, she and Shannon Leach, ’20 M.B.A., had started the Twin Cities chapter of Frontline Foods, which worked with about a dozen restaurants to deliver meals to hospital and clinic staff. She thought the restaurants could provide food for people working on the cleanup as well. “We wanted to do our small part to bring people together and boost morale,” she says.

Fellowship feeds a need

A veteran of the food industry, Leach learned about Frontline Foods’ national organization through the Carlson School’s graduate business career center. Having worked for Izzy’s Ice Cream for 13 years and knowing area restaurant owners, she saw how the industry was hurting. “A lot of our restaurants were in more financially fragile positions than we thought,” Leach says.

She teamed up with Ullyot, whose summer internship with Boston Scientific had been cancelled, to launch Frontline Foods in the Twin Cities. Among other things, Ullyot handled marketing and social media; Leach was in charge of connecting with restaurant owners and making sure they could prepare and deliver thousands of individually packaged meals on short notice. “We wanted to work with women and minority-owned restaurants,” Leach says. “That was our top priority.”

“You felt like there was a lot of purpose, being able to connect with another person—to have that moment where we can be face to face and sharing food.”
Shannon Leach

Each applied for and received Sands Family Social Venturing Fellowships that April—even though it was six months after the fall application deadline. Sands fellowships help Carlson M.B.A. students create ventures that provide a tangible benefit to the community. “We were given special consideration because our idea was pandemic-related,” Ullyot says.

Receiving the fellowships not only provided Ullyot and Leach with funding to launch Frontline Foods Twin Cities and help pay for meals, but also connected them with former fellows and fellowship founders Bill and Susan Sands. “They were amazing resources,” Leach says of the couple. “They connected us to other potential donors and helped us brainstorm how the structure of the organization would work.”

“One of the rare moments in 2020”

Frontline Foods Twin Cities made its first delivery on May 12, delivering 200 meals from Taqueria Los Quatro Milpas to workers at M Health Fairview in Maple Grove. Altogether, Leach and Ullyot raised more than $110,000 through donations and corporate grants that allowed their restaurant partners to provide more than 8,500 meals to health care workers and people affected by this summer’s unrest.

Leach and Ullyot were often at the delivery sites, working alongside restaurant staff and volunteers to distribute meals. “You felt like there was a lot of purpose, being able to connect with another person—to have that moment where we can be face to face and sharing food,” Leach says. Adds Ullyot: “It was one of the rare moments in 2020 that really gave me hope for the future.”

Leach, who now works for Ka-Pop! Snacks in Boulder, Colorado, and Ullyot, who will graduate in May, have since stepped back from their roles with Frontline Foods Twin Cities. Last August, the national organization was acquired as an independently operating arm of World Central Kitchen, which provides food as a part of disaster-relief efforts and was the 501c3 that handled donations to Frontline Foods Twin Cities.

Both Leach and Ullyot plan to stay involved as advisors. “It was an amazing experience for us to be able to make the impact we did in a matter of months—especially standing with the Black community and trying to further the conversations about racial injustices,” Ullyot says. “It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.