Care packages, pizzas and sausage sizzles: Meet the Melbourne business owner going the extra mile to support her community during COVID-19

Tonda Italian owner Liza Russo (left) and manager Rebecca Chick. Source: supplied.

A Preston restaurant owner has given away 300 ‘care packages’ of produce, sourced from local suppliers, to people in her community in an effort to lighten the mood a little.

And one good deed has led to others, generating a wave of support from suppliers and the public.

Tonda Italian in Preston posted an image on Instagram yesterday, showing a table lined with brown paper bags, along with owner Liza Russo and team member Rebecca.

“Lately there’s been so much division, hardship and uncertainty and not enough kindness and compassion,” the caption said.

“So we have decided to put together these free care packages for people in our community hoping to put a smile on a few faces.

“We have bought from local businesses to support them and are now giving it to you.”

Speaking to SmartCompany, Russo says that between lockdowns, business closures and division of opinion over vaccines, the mood among the local business community has been a little downbeat.

So, she took it on herself to bring back some positivity.

She bought up produce from local suppliers and market businesses to fill 300 care packages with food, offering them up for free to anyone who needed them, no questions asked.

“We just went out there and bought from some local shops,” she says.

“We thought we would just give back to the community.

“I would love to do more, but I can’t, financially.”

Of course, Russo’s own business is suffering, too. The Italian restaurant is offering takeaway services during Melbourne’s latest lockdown.

She’s determined to support her team members, she adds, some of whom are on temporary visas and are not eligible for government support.

Russo’s overheads aren’t getting much smaller.

“But I just felt in my heart, whatever I could do to get out there and help people as much as we can, even though we’re suffering ourselves.”

“It just breaks my heart”

The business had 300 bags of food to give away. They were all gone within about 10 minutes, Russo says.

So, her team started whipping up pizzas to hand out, instead.

“My boys put their thinking caps on and just kept making pizzas,” Russo says.

During our conversation, Russo is audibly emotional. She tells me about a teenager who collected a package yesterday, she estimates no older than 15, who said he hadn’t eaten in four days.

“I’ve been in business for a very long time — over 20 years — and I have not ever seen anything like this,” she says.

“It just breaks my heart.”

It’s one thing for businesses to do what they can to survive, she says. But the real heartbreak comes when the people in their community are suffering.

‘Doing my duty’

Russo says the Instagram post reached some 30,000 people within the first few hours. For her, it wasn’t about advertising, it was more about spreading awareness.

And it’s worked. Suppliers have been in touch offering more produce to give away.

One offered the business 700 sausages, she says. Others have reached out offering bread.

So, this Sunday, the team is putting on a free sausage sizzle for those who need it. Russo stresses that social distancing will of course be observed.

Anyone who can afford to is invited to donate a gold coin, she adds, with all proceeds going to a mental health charity.

Still, she maintains that she’s is “just blessed”, with amazing staff and customers.

“I just want to give love back.”

She also hopes a good news story and a sausage sizzle will help lift spirits at a difficult time, taking people’s minds off the uncertainty and the division.

“What we’re seeing is just crazy,” she says.

“Anything we can do to put smiles on people’s faces for five or ten minutes … I’m happy, I’ve done my duty as a business owner.”

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