By Scott Greenstone Seattle Times staff reporter

 Gabriela Lopez helps assemble thousands of boxed lunches at Gourmondo in Seattle Tuesday, March 31, 2020. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Alissa Leinonen’s catering company in Seattle, Gourmondo, was projecting record sales at the beginning of March. 

Then, the first deaths of coronavirus in the U.S. hit in neighboring Kirkland, and a wave of event cancellations and work-from-home announcements hit Seattle businesses.

“I lost 80% of my business in 48 hours,” Leinonen said. “It had just vanished.”

Leinonen, who started Gourmondo in Pike Place Market 24 years ago, took herself off payroll, put her savings into the business to shore up losses, and told 22 of her employees they were laid off, at least temporarily.

Then, one of her biggest contracts —Amazon, whose campus is home to nine Gourmondo grab-and-go cafes — called with a proposition.

The company would pay Gourmondo to prepare and deliver catered meals for 2,700 seniors and people with disabilities in public housing run by Seattle and King County housing authorities.

Seniors living in public housing in King County are in a predicament: Many of them rely on food banks, which are experiencing shortages and even shutdowns locally, or bus trips to the grocery store. Housing authorities want to help their residents shelter in place, but don’t have the resources for food.

“The reality is these are not people who can go to Costco and get three weeks worth of food,” said Stephen Norman, executive director of King County Housing Authority.

Many of the housing authority’s residents, especially older ones, also have underlying health issues or disabilities. There have been three confirmed COVID-19 cases in King County Housing Authority buildings, according to the agency, and two Seattle Housing Authority residents have said they tested positive for COVID-19, according to a spokesperson.

“Obviously when you have concentrations of medically vulnerable people, you should be concerned,” Norman said.

When Amazon asked if they could pay Gourmando to produce these meals, Leinonen remembers crying.

“It was the first time I broke down since this all happened,” Leinonen said. “This is a project where not only can we do something that we love, but we can serve a need. And I can keep my doors open.”

Gourmondo staff are working in rotating shifts, so they never have more than eight people in a workspace at a time, to make six meals a week for 2,700 people, from tamarind-marinated roasted salmon or soba noodle salad with sautéed shiitake mushrooms to coriander-dusted seared beef.

Leinonen said it’s the most meaningful thing her business and staff have ever been part of.

“For all of us who can’t see our parents, who can’t see our grandparents, it’s a really meaningful way to provide some comfort for those of us who need it,” Leinonen said. “It’s really given us a greater sense of purpose.”

The work stabilized Gourmondo, providing more than half what they used to make, and allowed Leinonen to bring back many of her laid-off workers. The $1.5 million program will last through April.

And calls and letters from thankful residents have been pouring in.

“It sends the message that somebody cares about them,” Norman said. “And that, I think, is as important a gift as anything.”

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