Kyleena Falzone's restaurants in the mountain resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado, the Secret Stash and Bonez, together made nearly $6 million in revenue last year. But when Gunnison County issued an order March 16 for all visitors to leave as soon as possible, what looked like the start of another busy spring season came to an abrupt end. She had to lay off 132 of her 140 employees. But while her restaurants likely would have survived the lockdown in hibernation mode, she says, "I couldn't just sit around."

Instead, Falzone spent the next three months feeding thousands of out-of-work locals through 11 weeks of farmers' markets handouts, 83 nights of free dinner kits, and three weeks of free groceries. Using social media, she crowdfunded most of the $100,000-plus effort from people who own second homes in the town. Here's how she pulled off the initiative, which even inspired a similar project thousands of miles away. 

Engage donors on social media 

Soon after the pandemic shut down tourism, Falzone planned to go shopping in the nearby town of Gunnison, and decided to offer to buy groceries for her Facebook friends. Intending to make a regular post, she accidentally pressed the "live" button, which allows Facebook users to broadcast real-time video to their friends and watch comments. People started giving her their grocery orders, and Falzone found she took to the platform. "I could not believe the power of Facebook Live," she says. "It just blew up." 

Inspired by the response to the grocery run and to sales of her restaurants' pizza kits--local businesses bought hundreds and then donated them--Falzone then kicked off the free food drive in earnest. She began handing out the kits each night, funding them in part through donations solicited through Facebook Live broadcasts.

As a vegan, she also wanted to find a way to give people fresh fruits and vegetables. So she created weekly farmers' markets to distribute free product to locals. "Kyleena has been a customer for 20 years and we consider her part of our family, so when she called we knew we had to help," says Ann Ocana, CMO of Shamrock Foods, one of the businesses that donated food for the market. "Everyone was inspired to get behind her idea and help make it a reality."  

Again, Falzone broadcast the goings-on at the farmers' markets to raise funds to cover the costs. That played a big role in rallying donors since "they can actually see where their money is going." Eighty percent of the donors, Falzone estimates, are second homeowners. People even came up to her on the street and handed cash or checks for the effort, especially as the county began to reopen to tourists

Extend your philosophy of hospitality 

Falzone attributes the initiative's success in part to a focus on her employees and her town that long predates the pandemic. She opened the Secret Stash in 2002 and Bonez in 2012, and has been in the hospitality industry since she was a teenager. In a manifesto she recently wrote on the subject, she writes that employees are a "community" and that "investing in our community also creates wealth for our community, which in turn often leads to good luck for our business." 

Affordable housing for locals has long been an issue in Crested Butte and other ski areas, and Falzone has attempted to help in her own way. Last year she broke ground on an apartment complex for her employees with two-bedroom apartments that cost $1,500 a month, far below the market rate for rentals in Crested Butte. Three of them are scheduled to move in within the next two weeks.

Her restaurants' menus encourage patrons to tip to assist the staff with housing--suggestions are $5 for a campground or $1,000 for "living the dream with kids and a mortgage." Falzone says customers have tipped $1,000 eight times since they added the section to the menu three years ago. When they do, the Secret Stash matches it.

Falzone also offers a 401(k), free yoga classes, complimentary ski passes, and first-time homebuyer's classes for her employees. And now more of them will be able to take advantage: With business picking back up after tourists returned to Crested Butte in late May, Falzone has been able to rehire 50 people. 

Expand your impact

More business also means the charity efforts are transitioning. Last Friday, Falzone ended an 83-night run of free dinner kits for 50 people, which she had supplemented with her own funds. But that doesn't mean she's done raising money. She says she thinks she might have a talent for it, so she's starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing suicide, domestic violence, and cancer. The plan is to focus on the nearby area for the first three years and then expand.

Falzone says she works hard to teach her son that there's a world beyond the small town of Crested Butte by bringing him all over the world, especially to her favorite place to visit, India. One of her friends in New Delhi started raising money to feed children there after seeing her project on Facebook, she says. Falzone reposted his initiative and raised $2,000 overnight, she says--it's now at $4,100.

While her restaurants entered the pandemic in a healthy financial position, Falzone believes any business owner can improve people's lives during this crisis. "If you're a leader and an entrepreneur, just get out there and do something big and make a difference," she says.