In late March 2020, Newark native and small business owner Karen Gajda was about to do something she never thought she’d have to do. Covid-19 was forcing offices and college campuses everywhere to close, sending employees and students home and slowing transportation hub traffic to a trickle. Overnight, Gajda’s van business, which relied largely on shuttling commuters between the airport, train station, office buildings and campuses around Newark, fell by about 75%. “My immediate concern was for my employees,” she says, including 33 drivers Gajda says are “like my kids.” With the slowdown in business, she was going to have to furlough many of them.
Gajda’s longtime lead dispatcher and manager, Benjamin Stoudt, broke the news to the drivers, one by one. “It made my heart drop,” Stoudt says. One of those drivers was Edward Green, a familiar face to Audible employees who rode the shuttle between Newark Penn Station and Audible’s headquarters every morning and evening, five days a week. Green had been driving those shifts for three years, so when Stoudt told him that Audible was sending employees home for the foreseeable future, “I was really worried,” he says.
Audible’s Director of Facilities, Brian Mullen, was in regular communication with Gajda from the beginning. “Nobody knew what Covid was yet, or what the impact was going to be,” he explains. “At first we thought we’d just pause service, but it looked like we were going to be closed a lot longer and [we] wanted to understand the impact this would have on her business and the drivers.”
As it happens, Mullen was part of the early planning stages of a relief effort that Audible was launching. Newark Working Kitchens (NWK) would activate local restaurants to prepare food for vulnerable residents, such as low-income seniors and families, while simultaneously helping to keep restaurants open and people employed. To deliver those meals, Mullen explains, they had to consider “the food-service window of safety, the maximum time allowed between pick-up and drop-off.” Vans would be most efficient, capable of picking up 100-200 meals at a time. Immediately, he says, “everyone realized where we could get such vans.”
When Mullen approached Gajda about using the Audible shuttle vans to deliver NWK meals, she was very excited at the prospect of being able to retain some of her staff for the new duties. “She treats her drivers like family,” he says. About a month after calling Edward Green to deliver bad news, Stoudt was able to call him back with a proposition: would he like to drive again?
Country Club was able to re-hire two drivers to make almost-daily runs for NWK, picking up hundreds of meals from restaurants and making deliveries all around town. As funding to NWK increased, another driver was added, also paid a full-time salary. “We were still working and being paid,” says Green, “but also being able to deliver food to the community, to first responders, to low-income housing and elderly people. It felt great.”
“It was helpful for us to have the vans to offset the logistics,” says Jennifer Shin, Director of Community Affairs for Audible’s Global Center for Urban Development (GCUD), which manages NWK operations, “but it was also about figuring out a way to keep paying our vendors and the employees we’ve developed relationships with. The drivers are hugely important. They’re heroes – they’re recognizable vans and the community sees them and knows it’s NWK.”
By summer 2021, NWK had delivered more than 1 million meals to people in need, with the help of Audible vans. As Audible begins re-opening its offices as part of its Hub + Home hybrid model of working, the vans are once again shuttling employees too. Country Club has been able to re-hire 11 of its drivers so far, with five of them currently dedicated to Audible and NWK. Stoudt thinks they’ll be able to re-hire more drivers soon. “Business is picking back up, little by little,” he reports.
For Gajda, having grown up in Newark and built a business here, it fills her with pride that her company was instrumental to NWK’s impact on the city. Looking toward the future, she says, “I am the eternal optimist. I see my hometown thriving again.”