CALISTOGA — It’s hard to gauge exactly how many people in the Napa Valley are struggling to feed their families because they are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But if 700 people show up for a free meal in less than two hours, that might be an indication.
“We knew there was a need, but how quickly the word about the meals spread really showed how much of a need there was, and it really took everybody by surprise,” said James Cerda, operations manager at Theorem Vineyards.
A couple of weeks ago, Josh Mitchell, owner of Napa Valley Heritage Catering, teamed with Theorem, both in Calistoga, to offer ‘Free Friday Meals’ for the families of restaurant employees now out of work.
Without much announcement, the first Friday, March 27, they handed out 50 meals. It wasn’t that organized, Mitchell said, and they had no idea what they were getting into.
Mitchell operates his catering business in the Riverlea Plaza at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Petrified Forest Road, and in 2018 he also started offering a take-out lunch menu. He has a history of partnering with Napa Valley vineyards, including Theorem.
After the shelter in-place and social distancing orders went into effect in March, “Kisha and Jason Itkin (Theorem’s owners) told us not to worry about selling wine for the moment, but on how to give back to the community,” Cerda said. “Free Meal Fridays was something we could do right away.”
Cerda spread the word through social media and by enlisting the help of others in the wine business, vineyard managers, and the Boys & Girls Clubs. Between the circles and connections, the word got out, he said.
At about 4 p.m. Thursday, April 2, Cerda told Mitchell to plan for about 250 meals, “which is about 100 more than I was initially thinking,” Mitchell said. By 8 p.m. the number grew to 400. “This was 24 hours before the event. Luckily, the week leading up to this, all I’d been doing is cooking, so we had a lot of product in-house.”
Mitchell has laid off most of his staff, but worked through Thursday night with help from Theorem. He admitted it was difficult, and was pulling from the back-up of his backup supplies. “A lot of it was in half-baked states and just needed to be finished,” Mitchell said of the meals, explaining he specializes in old-school food preservation techniques using salt and fat. “We basically gave away my kitchen.”
The meals on Friday consisted of crispy pork carnitas with roasted tomatillo salsa, rich, brothy black beans, cabbage slaw with pickled jalapeño and red onion, with a lime cilantro crema. There was also crispy pork cheek, molasses smoked cured ham, short ribs, and roasted chicken soup.
Cerda was concerned about the possible traffic flow, and gave the Calistoga Police Department the heads up, as well as Riverlea neighbors. Staff also wore gloves and masks delivering meals to the lined-up cars.
Though drive-through hours were from 3:30-5:30 p.m., people started to line up at 3 p.m., and there was a line trailing out of the parking lot for the full two hours.
“We handed out 100 meals before 3:30,” Mitchell said, with Cerda adding, “It was intense.”
Mitchell said you could see the emotion on people’s faces when they received the food.
“They were very appreciative, and times are just so crazy, you could see that they were scared, too, not knowing what’s going to happen. The uncertainty is rough,” he said. “We have to make sure that these people who rely on tips (for a living) are taken care of. I’m sure that they are struggling as far as being able to get a good meal.”
Future Free Meal Fridays
Mitchell’s motivation for doing this is his love for the community and desire to take care of it.
“I love Calistoga, and the way the that the community has stepped up year after year, including the fires … you take care of people that are in this with you,” he said. “I tell people I have a little grandma inside me, and all I want to do is feed people, and make sure they are nourished.”
Mitchell did eventually run out of meals on Friday. To see the faces of those expecting food was heartbreaking, he said.
“To have to go out to those people and tell them (we ran out)… there’s definitely a demand for this. Hopefully it will inspire others.”
It already has. As the numbers started to grow past 400, that’s when St. Helena’s Clark Vineyard Management (CVM) stepped in.
“It wasn’t super organized… Theorem was in for 450 and I just offered up that CVM would pick up the sponsorship of the balance,” said Joshua Clark, the company’s owner. Clark is also co-sponsoring this coming Friday’s give-away.
Mitchell said the free meals will continue for at least three more Fridays, with different sponsors.
“With the uncertainty and not knowing what’s going to happen (around the pandemic and shelter-in-place order) we’re going to do this as long as there is a need,” he said. “I think it’s going to kick other chefs and food producers in this valley into gear and into helping everyone who needs it.”
Going forward, Cerda and his team will continue to donate their time to support Mitchell and Free Meal Friday.
“Our goal is to keep this going throughout the time people are out of work. We want to do it in a way that will inspire and challenge others... who’s going to step up next?” Cerda said.
Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.
You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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