Before she was the general manager of the award-winning Princeton Soup & Sandwich Company (PSAC), Alex Ruddy was a 12-year-old girl standing on a milk crate behind a register, too short to meet her customers’ eyes. She had many hopes, dreams, and plans for the future. Most of them included food. None of them included saving her family’s restaurant in the wake of a pandemic.
But now, that’s what Alex — who returned to work under her mother Lisa, owner and president of PSAC, after earning a degree in culinary arts and business administration from the Culinary Institute of America and spending a year in New York City’s world of high-end catering — has to do.
Before the novel coronavirus swept the globe, Alex spent every day working alongside family and friends, doing something she couldn’t help but love. It was simple. It was her life. So when she heard the news of COVID-19 forcing the closure of most businesses and restaurants across the country, she was devastated.
“Honestly,” she said, “in the beginning, my heart was broken. It was like a bad breakup gone really, really wrong.”
Like many small business owners in Princeton, the mother-daughter pair of Lisa and Alex Ruddy found themselves forced to decide how best to support their employees in the midst of a crisis out of their hands. The Ruddys decided early on that it wasn’t in their nature to ask the public for donations without being able to provide a service in return. They had no choice but to lay off their staff in its entirety.
“We’ve lost everything here in Princeton,” said Alex. “We’ve lost the University, the students, foot traffic, Nassau Inn, the library. Everything.”
Abandoning a lifestyle that had grown so dear to her, losing colleagues who felt like family, and watching Princeton turn into a ghost town was enough to make Alex lose hope. But every day, she returned to work. She and her mother took on the responsibility of operating one of the only open restaurants in town. Without her band of enthusiastic employees by her side — and missing the constant laughter and joy she normally found in the kitchen — Alex needed daily reminders from her mother to keep a smile on her face. She had to keep going.
Working side by side to keep their family’s business alive, the Ruddy women got tired, fast. The prospect of a community-wide lockdown lasting for months rather than weeks raised a great deal of uncertainty and fear. But were they ready to throw in the towel?
No, insisted Alex. Not even close.
On March 30, Soup & Sandwich Company received a donation from Palmer Square Retailers and the Nassau Inn. The two businesses were aware of how difficult it was to get food for emergency workers at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC), a local hospital. They paid for 100 bagged lunches from the Ruddys’ restaurant and asked that they be hand-delivered to those fighting on the pandemic’s frontline.
And just like that, Princeton Soup & Sandwich was back. Alex threw herself into her work, focusing her attention not only on her craft but on those counting on her to provide a service that would keep the hospital running smoothly.
Delivering the bagged lunches to the workers at PMC filled Alex with joy.
“To be able to give back to the community during these times,” she said, “honestly warms my heart.”
The PMC nurses posted on social media holding their bagged lunches. Close to tears, staff members ran to thank Alex and Lisa for their gracious gifts. Working exhausting hours to battle a devastating disease, the nurses were overwhelmed by the support they received from PSAC, the Nassau Inn, and Palmer Square Retailers. After all, they had been eating fast food and pizza for weeks. They were in need of a home-cooked meal.
And that gave Alex an idea.
Seeing how much 100 bagged lunches had meant to the staff of PMC — and knowing how beneficial this effort was for her struggling restaurant — why stop there? Alex created a GoFundMe, asking family and friends to give whatever they could. Any donation, of any size, would allow her and her mother to continue making and delivering bagged lunches for critical care workers. Just seven days later, she’d raised $10,000. By the time of publication, she’d raised over $13,000.
How did she do it? Alex is not completely sure. Shocked at how quickly word of the fundraiser spread across town, she credits her family and friends — her “greatest support system” — for doing whatever they could to get the word out.
“People just caught on, which is the crazy part,” she said. “I thought $10,000 was going to take us months to get. We made it in a week!”
Funded by donations from the Princeton community, Alex and Lisa were able to rehire the Soup & Sandwich Company’s two assistant managers. The four of them work together to make, pack, and deliver lunches to PMC three to four times a week.
For every $15 donated through GoFundMe, the Soup and Sandwich team makes one bagged lunch, supplied with “a full signature cold sandwich, house side salad, piece of fruit, and chocolate chip cookie,” which is hand-delivered to those working to protect the community from COVID-19. Lisa and Alex match the percentage of donations that GoFundMe takes as a tax, digging into their own savings to ensure that every cent given goes directly toward making meals.
“Even though we’re ultimately losing some money, we’re helping the community at the same time,” said Alex. “We are always giving.”
And Alex’s favorite part? Every bagged lunch comes with a personalized note to critical care workers signed with the name of a donor, allowing the nurses to see that there are real people out there, facing struggles of their own but using their time and money to show gratitude.
The Ruddy family has felt an overwhelming sense of support from the Princeton community, receiving donations from various companies, messages from strangers, and daily phone calls from grateful staff. It seems surreal to them that they’re able to keep their own business afloat while simultaneously helping others.
“I guess I found a loophole, almost, within all of the chaos that’s going on,” said Alex. “I found a win-win, for both the community to give back and help our small business.”
For Alex, this is more than just a way to provide for herself and her family. In a time where it’s easy to feel helpless, she says this fundraiser has reminded her of the strength of her community, of her staff, of her family and friends — and most importantly, of those putting their safety aside to heal others.
“It’s such a small world,” Alex said, “that people are able to share some sort of compassion with a stranger during trying times.”