Joe "PeeWee" Johnson,(left) owner of DeJavu 2 Cafe donated lunch to the staff of People's Clinic at its Delmar location Tue. Apr. 28, 2020. 

Dejavu Café II and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) have paired up during the COVID-19 pandemic to prepare and deliver free meals to frontline and essential workers.

Gerald Johnson, owner of Dejavu Café II, who is known as Pee Wee, kept his restaurant open for carryout after the shelter-in-place public-health order went into effect on March 23. He reached out to Lew Moye, president emeritus of the St. Louis CBTU Chapter, because he wanted to help his community. 

Johnson knew Moye because Moye teaches a dance class at the club next door to Dejavu Café II, which is located at 2805 Target Dr., near the corner of I-270 and Old Halls Ferry Road.

Since the restaurant is located in North St. Louis County, Moye and Johnson decided to target locations in North County, starting with Christian Hospital and the MetroBus North County Transit Center. Johnson also said that “the numbers coming out of North County were high so I wanted to help them first.” 

Dejavu Café II is located in the 63136 ZIP code, one of the county’s COVID-19 hot spots with 373 cases, a rate of 857.1 cases per 100,000 people. By comparison, the 63124 ZIP code, which includes most of Ladue, has reported 28 COVID-19 cases, a rate of 258.6 cases per 100,000 people. That means someone who lives in a neighborhood near the restaurant is more than three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than someone who lives in Ladue, though they are separated by less than 15 miles.

On April 11, Dejavu Café II and CBTU delivered 40 dinners to the Christian Hospital emergency department and 20 dinners to the MetroBus North County Transit Center. 

Moye said that the nurses and doctors at the hospital were especially busy because of the high rate of death in the county. Though St. Louis County is not reporting death rates by ZIP code, as of May 28, 154 of the 395 who had died from COVID-19 in the county were black. That’s 39.0% of the victims when blacks form only 24.9% of the county’s population.

One of those early victims was a MetroBus driver, and more than a dozen Metro staff have tested positive for the virus. When Moye heard the news, he and Johnson contacted the North County Transit Center. Since April 11, they have been delivering 20 to 40 meals each week to the center. On April 28, they delivered 360 lunches to them. 

As of May 28, Bi-State Development, which operates MetroBus, had lost two staff to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a spokesperson. In addition, it had 34 positive cases of COVID-19. At that time, it had 146 COVID-related absences, which includes mandated quarantines, self-quarantines, and individuals who need to care for children or for an individual who has COVID-19.

Johnson and CBTU have expanded to feed other essential and frontline workers. They gave 70 meals to Schnucks Grandview Grocery Store on April 17 and followed with another 80 dinners on May 2. Other businesses that have received their dinners include Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers and John Cochran Veterans Hospital in the City of St. Louis and the Jennings Post Office. 

“How we determine the number of meals is based on what people tell us,” said Moye, who coordinates each delivery. Whatever number they ask for, Johnson and his workers at Dejavu Café II deliver. 

“He has such a big heart,” Moye said of Johnson. “He's been doing whatever count I've given.”  

Several years ago, Johnson suffered a severe heart attack and flatlined for 15 minutes until the paramedics were able to revive him. 

“When we deliver these dinners, he says, ‘I have a new heart,’ after what happened to him,” Moye said. “He has a new heart, and he wants to give back, and he wants to support people that have supported him and his business over the years.” 

Johnson said that experience did change him.

“Having that heart attack, I had a different look on life, different look on everything,” Johnson said. “I was blessed to still be here. And I don’t know if this is what God gave me back to do, to start blessing people like I was blessed.”  

After Johnson started delivering meals, he noticed that others in his community started following his lead. He said, “I’m hoping I set a good example.” 

Johnson has not solicited outside donations to fund these meals. He and one other member of his staff cook all the meals and work with CBTU volunteers to deliver them, but the donated meals come from the profits he makes from carryout orders. 

“I don’t ask anyone for donations, but people like what I’m doing,” said Johnson. “So, they’ll send me 10, 15, or 20 dollars.” Whatever donations he receives go towards the free meals. 

“Wherever we delivered those meals, the workers were very, very pleased and very, very happy that someone thought about them,” Moye said, “and that's what they all say, whether they were nurses or doctors or grocery workers.” 

When asked what his favorite part was about the deliveries, Johnson said, “It’s seeing the smiles. It’s seeing the joy on their faces.” 

Carrie Zhang is doing her May Project as a graduating senior at John Burroughs School with The St. Louis American.

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