AUSTIN, Minn. ― Hormel Foods has put thousands of local lunches to good use.

Jim Sheehan, executive vice president and chief financial officer for Hormel Foods, said when indoor dining closed in March in Minnesota, the Austin-based corporation knew it was going to put a "big strain" on local restaurants.

"Many of these restaurants are family-owned, and so we looked for a way to solve that problem," Sheehan said. "Not only solve the problem of helping the restaurants, but helping the community."

Hormel initiated a program in which it would make a habit out of ordering a large number of lunches for its employees from a local restaurant, as well as purchasing food for residents at the Mower County Senior Center.

"It's been a big benefit to the restaurants and to those seniors that go to the senior center," he said.

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The original program, in which Hormel bought food from 20 different Austin restaurants, ran from the beginning of the pandemic to late summer, said Sheehan. When indoor dining in Minnesota closed again this winter, he said Hormel restarted the initiative and it's continuing still.

"During this process, we've ordered over 45,000 meals from local restaurants," Sheehan said.

A sign posted on the fencing that surrounds the Hormel Foods plant in Austin, Minn., where less than 50 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 out of the 1,800 working at the plant. Noah Fish / Forum News Service
A sign posted on the fencing that surrounds the Hormel Foods plant in Austin, Minn., where less than 50 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 out of the 1,800 working at the plant. Noah Fish / Forum News Service
The Hormel employees who received the lunches were those working in labs who are required to come into work, and those in the corporate office who've not been able to work from home.

Some of those meals were made at Austin’s oldest dining establishment, the Tendermaid. For 82 years the restaurant has served its infamous loose meat sandwiches made from its secret recipe to patrons in downtown Austin and around the world.

On a recent weekday afternoon nearing the restaurant's closing time, Sara White and her daughter, Jenna, were busy setting up bags for Hormel's corporate south staff to receive the following day for lunch.

Sara and her late-husband, Gary, purchased the Tendermaid in 1997. Before that, Gary was a proud employee of Hormel Foods.

"This intersection in 1938 was the busiest one in Austin, so that's why (the original owners) chose this location," White said of the Tendermaid's history. "And it's been going ever since."

White said that Hormel began purchasing meals from Tendermaid in March, and continued through Labor Day.

"It's been exponentially beneficial for me," White said of Hormel's business during the pandemic. "It's pretty amazing the things that they've done for not only me but the whole community."

She said she wasn't surprised by the community support from the corporation, and calls Hormel "life-changers." White said Tendermaid hasn't had to lay off any employees or cut its hours of operation, and she credits the kindness and support from the community in Austin and its businesses.

"It starts at the top. (Hormel's) leadership is second to none," she said. "They care about not only the community but everyone's community. They are a company out to make the world a better place."

A "large number" of the meals were also given to the senior center, said Sheehan, which Hormel has heard from community members was "very important" to the seniors that received them. Hormel employees volunteered to deliver the meals to the center, he said.

"We got some great notes back from some of those senior citizens, who said the person delivering the meal was the only person they saw all day long," Sheehan said.

Sheehan said the establishments the corporation supported by purchasing food from them are "very important" to Austin.

"They are members of our community, and have supported Hormel through the years," he said.

He said many of the restaurants the company bought lunches from don't have drive-thrus, making it harder on them to adjust to takeout-only restrictions.

Sheehan said apart from the short period of time Hormel had to furlough a few employees, the corporation's workforce has not been severely affected by the pandemic.

"We've been very fortunate that we've been able to keep our staff fully engaged," Sheehan said. "And many of our plants are running long hours right now, trying to keep up with the demand of food."

He said as of now, the program will continue through the end of January.

"But we'll stay in touch, and if there's another period of time when indoor is halted, I'm sure we'll reinvoke the program and keep contributing to the community," he said.