When COVID-19 lockdowns began to domino across the globe last year, the co-founders of local restaurant Tso Chinese Delivery — Min Choe, Jenna Choe, Eunice Tsang, and Angell Tsang — immediately looked for some way to help fellow Austinites. Many locals were suddenly out of jobs as non-essential businesses were forced to temporarily close to mitigating the spread of the virus. The three decided that the easiest way that their to-go and delivery-only restaurants could help was by offering free meals to un- or underemployed people.
“We wanted to feed a few folks,” says Min Choe, an Austin native, and a long-time entrepreneur whose restaurants are located in Cherrywood and the Arboretum. With that simple directive, the couples launched charitable branch Tso Giving in March 2020, and began their path to supplying Austinites hardest hit with more than $220,000 worth of meals — equivalent to 22,000 portions.
The Choes and Tsangs’s commitment to give back is really what drew the friends to do business in the first place. Tso was designated as a certified B Corporation in January 2020, meaning, in Min Choe’s words, that “the bottom line” (referring to profits and the company’s shareholders) “is not the number one most important thing.” While it still impacts Tso Chinese Delivery’s day-to-day, social activism and community impact are still high priorities for the team.
As part of the then-newly-formed Tso Giving in March 2020, the co-founders envisioned helping out the Austin service industry. They developed a donation infrastructure to offset the costs of food and production while paying their staff for their work through a combination of Venmo, GoFundMe, and Tso’s official website. From there, the Austin community pitched in: donations from individuals and from other local companies to contribute to the fund.
Initially, Tso Giving’s goal was small: They wanted to hand out just a few hundred meals. The restaurant put out a call for email and phone call submissions from people who felt they needed meals from the restaurant. Co-founder Eunice Tsang sorted through those requests to determine who would receive what, which were then delivered by the staff.
Once the number of requests became too large to manage, Tso set up a curbside pickup tent at its Arbor location instead, so that those people could just come and pick up food at designated times. Those springtime drive-thrus were initially run by the Choes and Tsangs. But, pretty soon much of the Tso staff were volunteering their time between shifts to the cause. “Our employee team was stoked,” Eunice Tsang says, “and it lifted morale.” It allowed the staff to “put our energy and anxiety into something good,” she adds, especially during a time when the world was feeling heavy.
Tsang enjoyed the interaction with the community during these pickups. To her, it was evident that these were more than just meals for them, she says. sharing that people would express how much the meals meant to them.
Tso Giving’s initial focus was just service workers, and then the team decided to expand their reach to other groups impacted by the pandemic. That May, Tso launched an initiative specifically aimed at teachers, the #50kForTeachers, which gave out $50 vouchers to 1,000 area teachers.
The idea came about because the Choes and Tsangs have children and realized the extent to which their kids’ teachers’ lives had also been turned upside down. If a hot meal could alleviate even a few moments of that stress, the Tso team considered that a win. This jump-started a new initiative where they would rotate their targeted giving, from educators to first responders, all while still offering free meals to the general public through curbside pickups.
In November 2020, the company upped the ante by seeking out nonprofit partners while also committing to donating another $100,000 in meals over the holiday season. Partnering with organizations that already had ties to segments of the community would allow Tso to reach the most people across diverse populations. The team put out an open call to nonprofits across the city, asking for proposals on how Tso could serve their respective communities. The selected partners included the Central Texas Food Bank, the Austin Asian Community Health Initiative (AACHI), People’s Community Clinic, Stop Abuse for Everyone (SAFE), Asian Family Support Services of Austin, Casa Marianella, and American Gateways.
For Jacqueline Smith-Francis, the corporate and organizational officer at SAFE, the impact of Tso’s donations on the survivors of domestic violence was tremendous. “It allows survivors to move into a place of stability in the sense that you’re no longer in that fight-or-flight place during what is already an excruciating time exacerbated by a once-in-a-generation pandemic,” she says. “It’s a sense of comfort.”
Derrick Chubbs, the CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank, echoes Smith-Francis’s sentiment. He says Tso and its giving program has been “essential” to the food bank over the past year, when more than 300,000 Central Texans reported food insecurity during the pandemic. “We don’t talk about the hope and the feel-good component that comes along with families being able to put food on the table during the holidays,” Chubbs says. “That’s a big one.”
And still, as Tso raised enough funds to independently continue its charitable efforts, the restaurant itself remains successful to the point where it’s expanding with a forthcoming third location this year.
Over a year later into the pandemic, Tso’s efforts aren’t done yet. In April, Tso’s collaboration with Via 313, a crab rangoon pizza featured on the local Detroit-style pizzeria’s menu, will benefit AACHI. There’s still work to be done to help feed Austinites, and the Chinese restaurant plans to keep fighting to make sure people in their community are fed.
Update, 2:43 p.m.: This article, originally published at 1:41 p.m., has been updated to include Angell Tsang throughout.