A delicious way to feed charities
By Lou Fancher
If you could save a teenager from falling victim to prescription drug misuse by eating creamy soft polenta with fontina cheese, would you eat it?
If a few abandoned German shepherds could be rescued or cats saved from euthanasia or young women in underserved communities could gain access to education that lifts them out of poverty -- and all it took was an order of sauteed veal scallopinne with fresh oyster mushrooms followed by panna cotta, a homemade eggless vanilla custard topped with Italian Bing cherries -- would you place your order and tuck in for a delicious meal?
That's what takes place every Monday evening at Gianni's Italian Bistro in San Ramon. Once a week when they are closed for regular business, owners Gianni and Melanie Bartoletti offer the restaurant to a nonprofit for its exclusive use. The nonprofit invites supporters to dine at Gianni's, and volunteers serve as waiters. The charity keeps 10 percent of the proceeds, along with all the tips -- hence the name Tips for Change.
If Gianni is the soul of the slow-braised short ribs and potato gnocchi, Melanie is the charitable engine behind what has become a form of "pop-up gala" for local nonprofits.
In 2013, the restaurant held two Tips of Change events and raised about $5,000. As of November, they'd held 23 events and raised $50,080, and three more events were scheduled. They already have 15 scheduled for 2015.
"When I started, we did it once a month," Melanie says. "It's so popular, we're turning people away."
Paws-in-Need raised $5,000 in one night; women's and children's organization Soroptimist, about $1,300. Melanie says the average is $2,000, with no investment from the nonprofit other than time and promotion to get people in the door. As of recently, they were booked into January. Gianni says that with time and patience, every request will be met, even though it means the Bartolettis give up a rare night off.
"I don't mind," Gianni says. "What's one day off? This feeds me. It feels good."
Melanie says she's simply responding to a voice she heard years ago, telling her to "go and make a healing place." She is the founder and former director of SonRise Equestrian Foundation, a nonprofit that offers healing by pairing children with social, emotional and physical challenges with horses. Now, running Tips for Change, she says she feels vital, integral, alive to something bigger than herself.
"For an organization like ours, it's an amazing gift," says April Rovero, CEO of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, the nonprofit featured recently at Gianni's. "We operate with 100 percent volunteer support, which means we don't have a big staff to write for grants and to open up the conversation."
Rovero formed the organization after the death of her youngest son, Joseph John Rovero, III, due to a combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. The organization partners with multiple educational and government agencies to advocate for prevention and increase awareness about the problem.
Gianni trains the one-night waiters before dinner is served from 5 to 8 p.m. Opening with a gracious, "We're proud to help you -- this is a problem that can't be fixed now, but if we all chip in, we can make a difference," his instructions start gently.
"You take the order, take the food out. Ninety percent of your job is then done," he says. "Safety is first: you will be running in a small area with hot plates, glasses. Don't be afraid to shout a warning if you must."
But then, adhering to his usual, strict standards, he gives detailed directions about writing orders, answering questions about wine, removing unnecessary cutlery and glasses from the table -- and jokingly, but encouragingly, he adds, "Serve drinks -- then hammer them with your cause and why you need their money."
Tom Amato, of Santa Clara, and Barbara Bowen, a Danville agent with J. Rockcliff Realtors, say they primarily love the food. Learning that Dominique Yancey, a deputy district attorney for Contra Costa County, would be their server, Amato said he looked forward to being served something other than papers.
He's joking -- and the sentiment is largely what has made Tips for Change popular. As the restaurant fills, laughter is frequent, friends greet each other boisterously and Gianni and Melanie circulate, filling in discretely to allow their novice servers and diners to enjoy the evening.