How do you make delicious grilled hot dogs, homemade chili, and other classic diner eats even better? By giving them to folks who need free meals the most — no questions asked. For more than 15 years, Perfectly Frank has been a staple among Old Dominion University students and a cornerstone of the Norfolk, Virginia, food scene. The owner, Tarah Morris, fell in love with the restaurant industry in college and never looked back. Now, she runs Franks for Friends, a program that donates meals to children and veterans and everyone in between.
Despite not having corporate backing and operating only one location, Morris and her staff have raised more than $20,000 during America’s worst economic year in history. They’ve been featured by CNN, USA Today, and The Virginian Pilot for bringing goodwill and gratitude to their community in tough times. Morris uses a simple bulletin board system where folks grab a ticket for a meal that’s already been paid for and dig in; she also delivers meals through her partnership with ForKids, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter to families and children. Thanks to ForKids’ Zakkiyya Anderson, Franks for Friends has extended its reach beyond downtown Norfolk to neighboring cities in need, such as Suffolk.
Prosper for Purpose sat down to speak with Morris and Anderson about their unique partnership and how they hope Franks for Friends will create a new narrative in Norfolk — and beyond — for philanthropic giving.
PFP: How did Perfectly Frank become a community staple?
TM: I opened Perfectly Frank in 2005. We’re a little mom and pop store, so we don’t do marketing — we’ve always relied on word of mouth. We treat our customers fairly and give them a fair price, and so they want to come back and support us. We’re also in a college town, so every year there are new people introduced to us — freshmen come (with) their parents.
When COVID hit, I was so scared that […] we weren’t going to make it, but our local followers came out of the woodwork and supported us in a big way.
PFP: How did you pivot your services to get through the worst of the pandemic?
TM: Not only was the whole university sent home, but we also didn’t have all of our staff. We had 16 people on at the time, and we were down to four because my staff are all students, too. The four of us rotated (shifts) to stay open as many hours as we could. We were only pulling in a couple hundred a day, which doesn’t cover the bills.
Then a customer donated […] a check in the mail for $200. She said, ‘It’s all I’ve got, but I just can’t stand the idea of you guys closing down so […] use this to help however.’ I called the Salvation Army and I said, ‘We bought 25 meals with a customer’s donation and we’re going to drop them off,’ and they were so happy. I posted that on our Facebook page just to say thank you. Then someone else saw it and they donated, too — it was like a tumbleweed effect. Before we even started Franks for Friends, we collected $13,000 in donations that we turned around and bought meals for people in need.
PFP: $13,000 in donations — that’s impressive! But that’s also setting a high bar. How did you keep the momentum going and create Franks for Friends?
TM: When restaurants opened back up in the summer of 2020, we were busy. I mean, we were operating at half capacity and doing curbside pick-up the whole time. By that August, we saw donations slowed down and stopped altogether. People were kind of going back to normal.
Then another customer contacted me out of the blue and said, ‘You know, I watched what happened. I saw every post’ — because I would post weekly updates on our Facebook page. ‘I’ve been wanting to do something for your crew because they’re amazing,’ she said. ‘Here’s $2,000. Tip each one of your staff at least $100.’
We had $700 left over since two of my staff members gave their $100 back. I thought, ‘Do we do the same thing we’ve been doing and contact other organizations and have them come pick up meals, or do we try to turn it into something that might sustain itself and encourage people to […] keep feeding people?’ So I sat down with a bulletin board and a sharpie, and I was like, all right, let’s make this up.
I posted about the $2,000 donation on our (Facebook) page and anonymously thanked her. And the next thing you know, (the donations) started all over again, and that’s how Franks for Friends got started. I don’t know the exact amount that we’ve raised in the past month or so, but the last time I counted, it was $6,000. There’s still a stack of donations that we’re waiting to put on the board.
PFP: How how Franks for Friends helped you grow on social media?
TM: Well, I think that social media is the only reason why this happened. I don’t know if only posting it on our page would have grown this fast, either. I belong to a (Facebook) group called Hampton Roads Restaurants for seven cities in the area. COVID had tons of restaurant owners and people interested in going out to eat join this group; it has around 75,000 followers. After posting there, we connected with a lot of new people in that area and (Franks for Friends) really blew up.
And since we started posting in the Hampton Roads group, our business page has been getting a lot of likes. We’ve got a lot of new faces […] where I used to know all the people on our page.
PFP: Why do you feel that connecting with the community is so vital for having a successful business?
TM: They’re the only reason why we’re in business. Without them, we would be non-existent. They’re the reason why we’re all employed.
You know, I’ve never taken a business class. I didn’t graduate from college — I was a poor young teenager that needed to make some money, so I got into the restaurant business. I noticed right away that people didn’t come back to Perfectly Frank because the food was the best meal they were going to ever eat, or because it was cheap. They come back because they’re comfortable. The food has to be good, and it has to be affordable. But if you’re a jerk, your customers aren’t going to come back. I’ve taught my staff that and it’s proven to be true.
PFP: How have you measured the positive impact of your charitable giving?
TM: We haven’t spoken to some of the people that have received the meals because of privacy issues. When we work with organizations that deliver our meals, their staff pick up the meals and take them to those in need. But when folks walk into Perfectly Frank and take a receipt (for a free meal) off our bulletin board, we get to meet them. And that has been really, really cool. Like, there’s one guy that comes in every day in dirty work clothes. He’s trying, and he’s so kind. He knows all of our names, even though he’s only been coming in for a couple of weeks.
We’ve heard a lot of thank yous and have even gotten cards in the mail. It’s remarkable because we’re not even the ones directly giving (meals) away. It’s neighbors in our community that want to help somebody that they don’t even know; then the people they serve want to thank them, too. Everyone involved is filled with […] a touching emotion, and it’s great to be facilitating that.
PFP: What are one or two organizations you partner with and why?
TM: ForKids are amazing! The woman that I work with, (Zakkiyya Anderson), has been such a blessing. They’re in the heart of Norfolk and they help place families that are in a housing crisis. Suffolk has fewer restaurants, so it’s harder to get meals donated to their after school programs. ForKids is the main (organization) that we were sticking with because they pick up our meals, whereas a lot of the other ones needed us to deliver and that’s harder.
PFP: What advice can you give to other business owners who want to start a similar initiative but worry about costs?
TM: At the end of the day, we realized that we would rather take the risk and help people than take zero risk and help no one. People are often scared to take a chance on programs like this because there could be negative strings attached.
But we have not seen one drawback — not a single one. And we work in a pretty rough (area). We’re right off of Old Dominion University, and before that started growing it was a pretty rough neighborhood. We get people from all over the place, and not one person has taken advantage of Franks for Friends; the entire thing has been so uplifting for everyone. My advice? Just go for it.
We followed up with Anderson to learn more about ForKids. After the pandemic cut ForKids off from smaller nonprofits, church groups, and neighbors who donated groceries and homemade dishes, Perfectly Frank arrived at the perfect time — Anderson and staff call it a “miracle situation.”
PFP: What is your role at ForKids?
ZA: I facilitate community partnerships and third party fundraisers. This involves receiving in-kind donations for our summer camp, back to school events, holiday drives, and so on. I work with other community partners to get supplies and household items for families that are traditionally moving out of the shelter and going into their own spaces.
PFP: How has COVID affected the folks you serve, especially in terms of meal requests and equitable access to food?
ZA: Most of our clients have been chronically homeless, and what that means for us is that it’s probably generational poverty — they’re not there because they were well-off. We also operate the regional housing crisis hotline […] for people that are having any kind of housing issues throughout Hampton Roads. In October 2019, we had somewhere around maybe 6,000 calls per month. By October of 2020, we saw almost triple that. The fact that the people that were already vulnerable got hit the hardest really is what stood out to us.
Before COVID, the only time that ForKids has provided hot meals to our families outside of our shelters was in our Beyond the Bell after school program. Now, we feed more than 30 people three times per day.
PFP: How did you start your partnership with Perfectly Frank?
ZA: In April 2020, Satchel Ziffer, an alum of ODU (Old Dominion University), approached us and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a GoFundMe for this local nonprofit program with these funds that I raised.’ That was how we learned about Perfectly Frank’s pay it forward initiative.
Satchel ended up raising about $830 and they gave 50 meals to us — it was amazing. We saw early on that it was going to go way past the two weeks that schools were closed down, so (Tarah Morris) and I talked about ways that we could find a consistent fix for providing meals.
PFP: What are a few specific positive impacts that you’ve seen come of this partnership?
ZA: Here’s a recent story about our staff. I reached out to Tarah and I said, ‘We’re moving next week and our whole staff has just been going nonstop since last year. I’d really like to make some free meals for them.’ And of course, Tarah was immediately like, ‘Oh, yeah, definitely. No problem.’
Everyone was so excited, from the CEO down to our receptionist. We had 40 people signed up for that first day because we were alternating days in the office. This situation with the pandemic has been so hard on everyone. Whether you still have a job or you still aren’t employed, when someone comes to you and says, ‘Hey, I got your lunch for today,’ it makes a world of difference — it really does.
I’m also really excited that Franks for Friends is helping homeless veterans, which spiked due to COVID — our case load for veterans tripled in a matter of weeks. We ended up delivering meals from Perfectly Frank to our veterans sheltered in hotels for about two months, last spring.
PFP: Why do you think Perfectly Frank has such a powerful impact on Norfolk and the surrounding area?
ZA: Perfectly Frank has inexpensive but really good food, kind of like your classic college diner: hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, chili, soup, things like that. I’ll add fixings to my veggie burger and still end up paying only $8.
Just having a simple but delicious hamburger with tots, not even a drink with it — that just means the world to our clients, especially our veterans. Like, recently we had a couple of non-client veterans […] that started texting my co-worker and said, ‘Hey, I heard you got the free food!’ We’ve become kind of like a staple, through this partnership with Tarah Morris. Mind you, some of these veterans have at least two children, so bringing free food to their doorsteps was such a huge, huge thing for them.
PFP: Looking ahead, do you see your partnership with Perfectly Frank inspiring other organizations like ForKids to take similar action against food insecurity and poverty?
ZA: Suffolk […] already has limited resources, so finding consistent partners for after school meals has always been a challenge. We’ve already drawn up a proposal to ask restaurants in our area if they would be willing to do something similar to Franks for Friends. What we envision is placing the flyer at the front of the register — you know, a meal for you, a meal for our clients in need. From there, people will hopefully buy into the program or donate a certain dollar amount.
Tarah opened up her personal phone and welcomed them to email her with questions, too. You know, for restaurant owners in particular, this is a very vulnerable and fragile time. It’s like, ‘Gosh, should I open my door to a whole bunch of people?’
That usually doesn’t seem like a great idea in terms of doing business, but now we can approach different restaurant partners and discuss the trials Tarah has gone through and how she was able to overcome them to make this incredible impact.
— Alexa Pellegrini