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Atlanta restaurant revives 'Hero Meals' program to honor those on front lines of pandemic

"Our workers are just exhausted so the gesture means so much more than you can imagine."

ROSWELL, Ga. — The hero signs, 'thank you' nods from the community. The gestures of love to frontline workers were all a familiar sight at the height of the pandemic.

But after almost two years with COVID-19, much of that attention has dropped away.

Big Oak Tavern's Nate Armstrong may be going through his own pandemic struggles, but he's on a mission to make sure healthcare heroes still know they're supported. 

"It does feel like déjà vu," Armstrong told 11Alive. "Here we are again. No one knew we were going to be in this situation."

In some ways 2022 feels like a flashback as restaurants once again struggle to adapt amid another COVID surge.

"For me it's all about safety for my staff and safety for my family," Armstrong said.

He has two sons, one of which is too young to be vaccinated, and has already lost loved ones to COVID-19. 

So a few weeks ago, Armstrong made the difficult decision to switch once more to 'take out' only orders at his Roswell restaurant. Instead, he's channeling his passion for food and service into a mission to support others. 

"Since we've gone to 'take out' only, I've had the opportunity to think about how do we give back to the community," he said, ultimately deciding to revive his Hero Meals program.

During previous shut downs, Armstrong's team fed hundreds of local students, ICU units and local first responders in the Roswell area.

This time, Armstrong said they want to go bigger.

"2020-2021, we focused mainly in the Roswell area," he explained. "Our goal now is to push out and venture in the state of Georgia."

So Armstrong is hitting the road. With the help of community donations, he's retaining his restaurant staff and feeding COVID testing and vaccination sites and hospital workers, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat.

11Alive joined a recent delivery to Piedmont Henry Hospital. 

"It's very easy to feel alone during this time," Dr. Lily Henson, CEO of Piedmont Henry Hospital, said. "Our workers are just exhausted so the gesture means so much more than you can imagine."

Through fundraising, Armstrong's team aims to feed 20,000 to 30,000 meals over the next six months, doing what he can to reassure workers on the front lines that they're not forgotten.

"It's more than just food in the tummy," Henson said. "It's knowing that people are thinking about them and willing to drive from Roswell all the way down here in Henry County. It's just wonderful." 

"It's all about touching the people that really saved our lives," Armstrong said. "It's a simple thank you that we need to deliver."

To learn more or contribute to Armstrong's initiative, click here.