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Alfredo Sandoval adds bacon to a boxed meal while working to fill orders for delivery and carryout at Citrus Cafe in Janesville on Thursday morning. The restaurant industry is one of many hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. But local restaurant owner Benny Useni said if you can cut lasagna into two pieces, you can cut it into three.

JANESVILLE

Benny Useni’s parents have worked in the restaurant business since he was born.

Growing up in Illinois, he said they were never the rich family on the block. They didn’t have much, but they didn’t need much in order to give.

If his parents saw someone who was homeless, Useni said they would make up a sandwich and send him to hand it over before coming back to work.

That’s how he was brought up: Nobody should go to sleep hungry.

“If there was people in need, growing up in the restaurant industry, I would always watch my parents just say, ‘We got the breakfast today,’” he said earlier this week. “It kind of stuck with us all the way through our life. That’s how we were taught.”

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Alfredo Sandoval prepares to stack three pancakes into a carryout box while filling orders Thursday morning at Citrus Cafe in Janesville. The restaurant is offering free meals to those in need, an act of kindness that has inspired some customers to add more to their bills to help out.

Useni and his wife, Jeta, own the Citrus Cafe, which she manages. They also own two Whiskey Ranch Bar & Grill locations in Janesville and Delavan with Ilir Banushi.

The restaurant industry is one of many hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But Useni said if you can cut lasagna into two pieces, you can cut it into three.

“Whatever we have, we can still share,” he said.

Useni said they are giving hot meals to those in need at their three locations. A Facebook post from the Citrus Cafe last week encourages those who are unemployed, disabled or elderly to reach out.

“Please don’t allow anyone in your home to go to sleep with an empty stomach,” the post states. “We have to be more grateful and less selfish.”

So far, Useni said the Citrus Cafe gets about 10 to 15 calls a day about hot meals. Janesville’s Whiskey Ranch location is pretty similar, he said, with maybe about 10 calls per day.

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Aggie Skrobacz carries an order to a vehicle parked outside Citrus Cafe in Janesville on Thursday. Citrus Cafe has been offering free meals to those who need them.

The idea originally started as an offer to all employees, many of whom rely on tips. From there, Useni started hearing more from residents who were worried about having enough food.

He said keeping his businesses running was a way to help his workers.

“At this point, we’re not making money,” Useni said. “We don’t even know what our losses are going to be until this is all over with.”

But these businesses aren’t shouldering the entire load alone.

Useni said community support has grown. Neighbors have reached out. Some regular customers call and say they want to help. Others ask to add $10 to their breakfast orders.

“The community supported us for all these years,” he said. “Now it’s our time to do our part, step up and help whoever we can.”

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Aggie Skrobacz takes an order to a vehicle while working at Citrus Cafe in Janesville on Thursday morning.

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