After his teenage son walked away barely hurt from a horrific car crash last December, Upper East Side restaurateur Arun Mirchandani knew he had to do something to give back to his community.
“He walked out of a mangled vehicle without a scratch,” he said.
When Mirchandani showed photographs of the car to an auto mechanic friend, the friend replied, “feed hungry and needy people,” Mirchandani told Upper East Site in an interview. He recalls his friend being astonished that his son survived, telling this reporter that his son’s survival “was a miracle.”
Mirchandani spoke to his business partner, Chirag ‘CC’ Chaman, a co-owner of The Drunken Munkey — an ‘Old Bombay’-style Indian restaurant serving updated Anglo-Indian cuisine at 338 East 92nd Street between First and Second Avenues — who dreamt up a program to feed the hungry in the neighborhood.
Starting in March, The Drunken Munkey has been serving 15 to 20 free meals a day, seven days a week to those struggling to or unable to afford food.
Advertised by a small yellow sign on the door, the program offers one hot meal per person to “those in need” every night between 9:30 and 11 p.m. Guests can choose a vegetarian or non-vegetarian option, as the meals change depending on what is available.
“We wanted to keep it simple,” Mirchandani said.
Though the program has not been advertised other than the nondescript sign, the restaurant has seen its effect on the community. Many of those who come for free meals are families with young children, and many, Mirchandani says, live in the Holmes Towers and Isaacs Houses, the public housing complexes spanning several blocks on First Avenue between East 92nd and 95th Streets.
Several of these families are regulars, he says, coming in several times a week for a hot meal.
Mirchandani is happy to provide the food, remarking that he knows that the needs of those lining up must be great.
“There’s no reason for a 5-year-old to be out at night,” he said.
He acknowledged the late hours of the program, saying that he wanted to time it so that the free meals were being made after the dinner rush, “when the kitchen is not under a lot of pressure.”
He also mentioned that some homeless shelters close at 10 p.m., and that if residents are not back by then, they won’t get a bed. So the 9:30 p.m. starting time accommodates those in a rush to grab dinner before they lose their spot.
Despite the lack of advertising about the program, Mirchandani believes word has spread among the public housing buildings and the homeless shelters, and he expects to see more people coming in for meals.
Though the city’s economy is recovering from the impact of the pandemic, food insecurity is a growing concern. According to a recent report by anti-hunger nonprofit City Harvest, “1 in 4 New York City children and their families don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.”
Remarking on the challenges faced by the neighborhood during the pandemic, Mirchandani said, “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have survived COVID.” He has noticed “growing hunger in the city, especially among the underprivileged,” and felt that The Drunken Munkey should help in its own small way.
Another reason the restaurant started the free meal program was the rising toll of inflation. As gas and food prices increase, and as local rents rise, many living paycheck to paycheck, or without a significant financial safety net are finding themselves having to choose which essential bills they can afford to pay. Food often doesn’t make the cut.
Mirchandani noted that he and Chaman wanted the program to illustrate to their staff the culture of the restaurant and its leadership.
“We want our staff [to know] that, at every stage, our goal and our intention has to be the right thing to do, either for the business, or for people, or customers or for the community.”
Since the free meal program began, Mirchandani has “noticed a change in staff morale, and I’ve noticed a change in customer morale.”
He said that at first, his employees were questioning the need for such a program, but that a month in, they began to see its benefits.
Mirchandani said the program “lets people that live in the neighborhood know what kind of restaurant that we are.”