The same floor of the arena that saw Kawhi Leonard sink his drummer to propel the Raptors past the Philadelphia 76ers last May now houses a large food production chain.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, in collaboration with its partners, seeks to prepare 10,000 meals a day to reach Toronto’s frontline health workers and their families as well as the city’s most vulnerable through community agencies and shelters.
MLSE plans to run the program at least five days a week until June, delivering half a million meals.
“It will be meaningful,” said MLSE President and CEO Michael Friisdahl, who sees the project as a way for his business to respond to a community need in times of crisis.
The operation started with 2,800 meals a day and has grown steadily.
“We learn as we go,” said Dan Morrow, vice president of food and beverage for MLSE. “We learned that it takes a long time to cook 5,000 pounds of pasta. “
A day earlier this week, they produced 17,000 liters of chilli and a volume of rice matched with giant 120-liter pots that were constantly on the move. Another day involved 100 liters of jerk marinade and 1,700 pounds of chicken thighs.
The operation currently involves nearly 20 chefs and about 50 others – MLSE managers with culinary experience such as the general manager of e11even, the posh MLSE restaurant located next to the Real Sports bar / restaurant. The total number will increase to 90 workers, a third of whom are chefs, when they reach top speed with 50,000 meals a week.
MLSE Culinary Director Chris Zielinski is no stranger to feeding thousands of people on game night, from a simple slice of pizza to a strip loin for $ 95 and a tower of seafood for $ 150 .
But generally, he has a much larger team to do it. The need for social distancing has reduced the numbers.
“One thing here, you are going to find that a lot of people are very passionate about their work,” said Zielinski. “They are passionate about this cause. “
“This team has just been unreal about meeting all the challenges, figuring out how to make the process transparent and secure,” he added.
The need for social distancing is favored by the size of the place. The operation currently uses five kitchens, with most of the food being cooked in the main kitchen of the arena. They used the Hot Stove Club, for example, to prepare and cook potatoes.
There are nine kitchens in all, and more come into play as the number of meals increases.
In the past, the large kitchen was filled with 40 people. Now the number is limited to eight.
“Normally, we pile up here and everyone works side by side. But it no longer works, ”said Zielinski.
They also established routes in the arena to control the flow of traffic and food, from the loading dock to the kitchen to the food assembly line.
For Zielinski, it is “a little foreshadowing, it is certain”.
“We don’t really know exactly, but I can tell you that we have had a lot of discussion about how we are going to handle this once we get back into business, because obviously it will be a different set of circumstances. We don’t even know the answer to that yet, but we’ll be ready for the next version. “
It takes a lot of work. Peeling, cutting and roasting 40 bags of 50 pound carrots takes time.
The chefs stay in the kitchen. Others transport food from the kitchen to the arena floor to be assembled and packaged for meals.
On the ground floor, more than a dozen tables are spaced in two rows. Food comes out of the kitchen and meals are assembled at the different stations and packed in take-out containers with stickers.
Music comes out of the arena’s loudspeakers, but it’s pretty much the only rest of the games or concerts that regularly filled the 19800-seat hall. Most of the lights are turned off, so the upper levels of the arena disappear in the dark.
Employees wear gloves and masks when preparing meals. Hand sanitizer dispensers are nearby. Most of the arena doors have been opened, to reduce the need to touch surfaces.
Other MLSE employees work remotely from home to help in other ways.
“There are a lot of people behind the scenes dealing with logistics,” said Friisdahl.
The menu depends on donations and suppliers of certain foods from Second Harvest, a food rescue charity that collects unsold food before it becomes waste and redistributes it to social service organizations.
“We’re basically operating like their kitchen right now – the kitchen of many shelters,” said Zielinski.
MLSE leaders look at their supplies, then bring their heads together and decide what they can do in a healthy meal.
“I tasted this food … These are great meals,” said Friisdahl proudly.
Once cooked, the food is cooled in refrigerators, then quickly assembled and covered, wrapped and refrigerated again to await distribution and reheating.
MLSE started discussing the idea about three weeks ago, starting with familiar names from Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, both co-owners of MLSE, as well as major sponsors of Scotiabank and Tangerine bank.
“They all immediately said, ‘Here we are,'” said Friisdahl.
Others are also involved, including the Team Toronto Fund, the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni Association, Sobey’s, Sysco, Maple Lodge Farms, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, Maple Leaf Foods, McCain Foods and Coca-Cola. They provided financial aid, services or food donations.
Second Harvest is a long-standing partner of MLSE.
“The way they handled it was really great,” said Lori Nikkel, CEO of Second Harvest, about the MLSE business.
“These individually wrapped meals are essential. And we didn’t have to distribute, “she added. “There is a time, with COVID, when you really need meals. You need food but you really need meals. “
In addition to shelters and community organizations, meals will be delivered to hospitals during shift changes, to catch people returning home after a long day at work and to provide a meal for four.
“We wanted to identify these two areas as key needs,” said Friisdahl. “And we wanted MLSE to really lead this initiative and use the infrastructure we have in the most efficient way to achieve it. “
The arena, on the site of the Canada Post delivery building, is built on history.
Leaf historian Mike Ferriman notes that the site was turned over to the government during World War II for use as a military depot.
Once again, it has been reoriented as the world fights against another enemy.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 24, 2020.
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