Like many in the restaurant industry, Walter Green has had a tough year — but after getting diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly losing his restaurant, he's doing everything he can to give back to his community during the pandemic.
Green, an Army veteran who said that he always loved to cook, said that he opened his restaurant, Uncle Willie's Wings, as a way to give back.
"The best way to show love is to give food," he told Sheinelle Jones on TODAY Monday.
He opened the restaurant in Newark, New Jersey just months before the pandemic hit. Aimed at providing a feeling of "something nostalgic," the small business had to close for a month when Green was diagnosed with coronavirus and spent three weeks in the hospital.
"We weren't able to generate any revenue," Green explained. "It made me feel like my dream was over. But I was also afraid for my life. … I (was) reaching out to various family members via FaceTime and I kind of said my goodbyes."
In the end, Green pulled through, and made himself a promise to help his community during the pandemic. He launched "Willie's Day," a gigantic neighborhood barbecue that would serve as a farewell to his restaurant.
"I cleaned out my savings to do all of that," Green explained. "I knew that possibly this (was) going to be my last hurrah for my restaurant. So if I'm going to go out, I'm definitely going to go out with a bang."
Instead of being an ending, "Willie's Day" was a beginning: Green was able to connect with Newark Working Kitchens, an organization that works with World Central Kitchen to pay restaurants to serve meals to people in need.
"It was like everything aligned," Green said. "The skies parted, the light came down, and my restaurant was saved."
In his partnership with Newark Working Kitchens, Green serves up to a thousand meals each week and delivers the food to families in need, giving him the chance to witness the impact of a hot meal firsthand.
"You get to see the smile on the children's face, the parents, the sigh of relief, and you know you're really making a difference," he said. "That is the best part of it."
Thanks to the program, Uncle Willie's Wings started to slowly recover; Green was able to re-hire four of the six employees that were laid off from the restaurant at the start of the pandemic. He also purchased a used van with more than 130,000 miles on it to deliver more meals to people in need throughout Newark.
However, the van has been having some trouble, so along with sponsor Ford Motor Company, TODAY had a special surprise for Green.
"We have heard all about the work you have been doing to give back to your community and serving your community with delicious meal," Sheinelle told him. "In honor of your work with World Central Kitchen and to help you continue to serve those delicious meals all around the community, our sponsor Ford … (is) giving you a brand new Ford Transit. This is yours, my friend."
In addition to the van, TODAY gathered some of the community to celebrate Green, who was blown away by the gift.
"I think I can put a lot more food in there and take care of a lot more people," he said, through tears. "Oh, man, this is so cool. This is perfect. I wanted to get one of these, I couldn't afford it."
Green told Shenielle that his tears came from the emotional whiplash of the past few months.
"I almost lost my restaurant and my van's been giving me trouble," he explained. "And now I've got a brand new van. It means a lot."