SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A restaurant CEO has found a way to "melt" the hearts of frontline hospital workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Melt saw signs of a meltdown once California sheltered in place in March. "Overnight, our sales dropped about 80 percent," said CEO Ralph Bower.
Still, Bower told all 140-plus employees they would get paid even if they didn't feel comfortable coming to work at the eatery's seven Bay Area and southern California locations.
"We wanted to not only have our team members' back but we wanted to have the backs of our first responders and hospital workers as well," Bower explained.
So he came up with the idea to offer free meals to medical first responders. Just by showing their hospital ID, they could pick up one of four burger or sandwich options.
The program is called Melting Hearts for Hospitals.
"It's been the most rewarding thing I've done in my restaurant career," said Bower. He was President of Popeye's for seven years before becoming the CEO of The Melt four years ago.
So far Melting Hearts for Hospitals has given away 16,000 meals, plus another 8,000 more donated every time customers bought a delivery order.
UC San Diego Head and Neck Oncology Program Director Jayna Athas says The Melt staff has become like family, and the food they provided fueled her last month of pregnancy.
"Just to have a healing meal at the end of the day when you're just burned out mentally, emotionally, physically just went beyond the call of anything that we'd been experiencing," Athas said.
LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service
More recently, The Melt began giving free meals to the hungry in San Francisco. It has partnered with Food Relief to help food banks feed a growing number of people in need.
Joe M's weekly meal pickups make a difference for his family of six.
"I like how it defrays the cost," Joe said. "More to use for utilities, maybe gas money."
The Melt employee Janeka Dowl says the giving spirit starts at the top, with Bower.
"He's a caring individual. A caring, loving individual for his community and where he lives at and his workers," Dowl said. "Makes you feel good inside to be able to give back."
"During the pandemic, it's been hard to find bright spots sometimes, but this has definitely been a bright spot for me and for our teams," Bower stated.
In fact, Bower noted that sales have climbed back up to pre-COVID levels.
He concluded, "If you do right by the community, the community will do the right thing by you."
So for giving free meals to first responders and families in need, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Ralph Bower.
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