Toyota Supports San Diego

San Diego County Toyota dealerships surprise diners with a free meal — and support local restaurants during COVID-19.
by Alexa Conomos
February 2021
Toyota Supports San Diego
We've Got the Tab
The “Toyota Supports San Diego” program treated diners to a total of 500 lunches at five restaurants across San Diego County, including Don’s Country Kitchen in Oceanside, Cocina Del Charro in Escondido, Jo’s Diner in Mission Hills, El Pollo Grill in Chula Vista and Havana Grill in Clairemont Mesa.“I was so excited to know our customers would be taken care of,” says Britten Doerfler, owner of Don’s Country Kitchen. “So many people are struggling financially right now. So, to tell someone they don’t have to pay for lunch was amazing.”
Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?
At a time when restaurants nationwide are fighting to keep their doors open during COVID-19 restrictions, a dose of generosity — or a free meal — can create a hearty ripple effect.
That’s the goal for the San Diego County Toyota Dealers Association (TDA), a group of 11 dealerships with a collaborative spirit that works as a team to support their community.
“We know that restaurants have been hit hard,” says Ivan Mendelson, president of the San Diego County TDA. “We thought this was a good opportunity to show our local restaurants and our community that we are looking out for them.”
As part of the “Toyota Supports San Diego” program, the TDA surprised diners and picked up the lunch tab at five local mom-and-pop restaurants, including Havana Grill and Don’s Country Kitchen. The program launched during the COVID-19 crisis to assist local businesses that have suffered from lockdowns, new protocols and occupancy restrictions.
“The first month of the pandemic was hard,” says Britten Doerfler, owner of Don’s Country Kitchen. “I had to quickly pivot to takeout, build online ordering platforms and arrange curbside pickup. It was really scary.”

Surprise and Delight
The TDA assisted Promises2Kids, a nonprofit organization that supports children in all stages of the foster care system by donating 20 Google Chromebooks to children in need of laptops for remote learning. “Even in normal times, foster children are at a disadvantage when it comes to access to technology and the pandemic has only amplified that. We are very thankful that the San Diego County Toyota Dealers Association was able to step in and help children in our program,” says Tonya Torosian, chief executive officer of Promises2Kids.

Business interruption insurance provided no relief for most restaurants. And as demand for disaster loans soared, it became difficult for many independent restaurant operators to secure coveted PPP loans. With restaurant jobs vanishing, the blow to the restaurant industry extended to service providers, such as farmers, distilleries, valet services and linen companies.
“Restaurants are somewhat similar to the automotive business in that they use companies all over the nation and the world to supply products and services, so the effect is wide-reaching,” Mendelson says. “It’s so important to encourage people to pay it forward by supporting their local businesses.”
To set that example, the TDA picked up 500 meals to the surprise and delight of unsuspecting diners.
“When our customers got their wallets out to pay, we would say congratulations, ‘Your meal is being paid for by Toyota,’” says Havana Grill Owner Sandra Cardet. “They were so surprised and happy. What a great gesture.”
Participating restaurateurs say they feel a profound sense of gratitude toward the dealers and their loyal patrons during this unprecedented time.
“These customers have always supported us nonstop,” Doerfler says. “They’re the ones who have kept us alive. What a beautiful way to give back.”
The TDA is continuing to grow the “Toyota Supports San Diego” initiative beyond just helping restaurants.
The group has also granted scholarships to the city’s Junior Lifeguard Program, delivered meals to first responders, supported local military families, donated clothing to homeless shelters and provided close to 1,000 pounds of canned goods to the local food bank. Their most recent effort included gifting Google Chromebooks to the foster youth of San Diego seeking higher education.
“We’ve learned that through collaborative efforts we can do so much good,” Mendelson says. “When we can work together as a team, we are able to accomplish quite a lot.”
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