When Doug White lost his job in a past recession, he kept the roof over his family’s head by working as a bartender at a local restaurant, his wife, Kim, told Insider.
When his daughter was going to nursing school, she worked as a server.
Local restaurants are “the soul” of a community and supporting them, especially during tough economic times, has become a way of life for the Illinois couple, Kim White said.
When COVID-19 first arrived last winter, they transitioned to ordering take-out, but even great to-go loses the experience in transit, so outdoor dining this summer was restorative, White said.
But as winter approached, and patio seating closed, they didn’t want to go back into isolation
“At the end of June, Doug was diagnosed with colon cancer. These little joys of going out and enjoying a meal, and feeling normal for a minute, was going to end,” she said. “We were so tired of eating out of takeout boxes and we didn’t want to do it again.”
Doug told his wife that he wished they had an RV so they could take it from restaurant to restaurant and enjoy dining out in a parking lot.
Kim thought of the next best thing, and converted a Ford Transit van she had for her job and turned it into a private dining room.
“I went to Menards and got a 4-foot folding table and put it in the back with some carpet, and I put lights up,” Kim White said.
On Oct. 30, the Friday that Illinois once again closed indoor dining in the state, the Whites took their van, packed with a box of dishes and silverware, to a local restaurant and had dinner.
When they posted photos of their night out to social media, they got so much positive attention they decided to start a Facebook page dedicated to their endeavors.
“We were doing this at first for our own enjoyment,” Kim White said. “The first couple times we did it, we were giggling because it’s a funny, quirky thing to do.”
The couple soon realized the restaurant workers are getting a lot of enjoyment and support out of their plan, too.
The engine in their van powers their trendy Edison lights and keeps the heat on. The couple picks their own music and they light a candle during the meal.
“When you have the table in front, even when people come over and serve us, it’s keeping us 6-feet away,” the couple said.
Doug White, a professional photographer, takes photos of the plated meals as a way to encourage other locals to support the restaurants that have been hit particularly hard this year.
As time went on, some restaurant staff even started asking if they could plate and serve the meal right to their van, knowing that it was good advertising.
“We’re well aware with what’s going on with restaurants right now and we know how hard it is to survive,” White said. “We’re also gig workers and we’ve been out of work since March.”
Over the summer, a friend made a GoFundMe account for the couple to assist with medical expenses and their loss of income. When the couple’s story of their van spread, some people started donating so they could get a meal out together.
As of Friday, people have contributed more than $36,000.
“We know we’re not able to support the servers and everyone that they’ve already had to let go, but if we can keep those restaurants afloat maybe they’ll be able to hire them back,” White said. “You can have servers and people in the kitchens and this is their life. This is what they love to do. To be able to do that again is giving them joy.”
On Friday the Illinois couple planned on dining at Palmer Place, a pub in La Grange, Illinois, where Doug worked as a bartender.
*story by Insider