Sunday Suppers aid East Bay nonprofits
By Lou Fancher
At chef Charlie Hallowell's Sunday Suppers, eating is a form of radical generosity.
Sunday Suppers are entering the third year of matching multicourse, prix-fixe meals at five restaurants with East Bay nonprofits to raise funds to help eradicate urban food deserts, support programs for disadvantaged youths, provide aid to seniors and other causes.
"Our elderly and our children are going hungry. What are we doing about it? Sunday Suppers is a meditation: How do we help these people who are doing charitable work?" Hallowell asked.
Twenty percent of people in Alameda County rely on food from food banks, the three-restaurant owner said.
"I was never interested in a mediocre event to raise money. I was consistently disappointed at fundraising events that weren't delicious, soulful. We have our name on this; it's a representation of the quality we want," said the owner of Oakland restaurants Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose.
At the July 17 supper at Penrose to benefit Planting Justice, a nonprofit engaged in food, social, employment and environmental justice movements, guests heard about the organization.
They then tucked into antipasti, salad, braised lamb or a vegetarian alternative, and sipped artisan wine, craft beer and a specially created cocktail before dessert.
More than half of the sliding scale $60 to $100 tickets and 100 percent of the signature cocktail purchases go to the nonprofit.
Local purveyors often donate the meat, produce or beverages served, increasing the money that goes to beneficiaries.
"People are having delicious food and supporting a nonprofit, too," said event coordinator Lauren Greis.
"What Charlie's trying to do: sourcing locally, saying let's sit down and break bread together. We're channeling that to have impact," she said.
The suppers have raised close to $150,000.
Economic and logistical realities have caused some trimming to original plans that had the suppers occurring monthly, offering two, 75-guest seatings.
Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Miss Ollie's in Old Oakland also joined Sunday Suppers.
The tweaks mean that 65 people per seating is now the cap. Hallowell said they will keep the events at the five restaurants to guarantee best-quality food and organization.
Introducing a sliding scale price, "makes it more accessible to a different echelon," Greis said.
But what hasn't changed is the nonprofit selection process applied by the team that includes Hallowell's assistant, Carly Roemmer.
"We look for deep connections to the community," she said.
Greis adds her angle: "People doing awesome, righteous work. Not too small and not too big. It has to mean something to them to raise $10,000 for them."
"We like kids. I'm interested in serving people who serve people who are underserved," Hallowell said.
Planting Justice co-founder Gavin Raders said the support is immense.
"When they contacted us, we jumped at the opportunity. It's not only the financial support; it's getting our name out in the community," he said.
Sonya Smith, of Oakland, is a veteran Sunday Supper guest.
"It was an opportunity to try a new restaurant and learn about community-based organizations. It's a fantastic value. It just made sense to me," she said.
Any spotlight on a nonprofit is a great endorsement, and because the menus, venue and people change each time, the suppers are "unique and really, simply offer terrific food," Smith said.
Hallowell, a former Chez Panisse cook, got his start in the kitchen at age 10, preparing family dinners.
Hallowell escaped turbulent childhood meals by hanging out with a friend whose parents "drank wine, played music and had fabulous dinner parties," he said.
"When my dad got sober and my mom started going to Al-Anon every night, I cooked for myself and my younger brother. I made a bastard version of Bolognese sauce with Ragu from a can, ground beef and onions. And I got a Sara Lee coffee cake from the grocery store that we'd warm up. My brother still pines for 'Charlie's meat sauce,' " he said.
While the odds that Charlie's meat sauce will make it onto plates at Sunday Suppers is slim-to-none, the magical moments Hallowell experienced when he saw his father teaching neighborhood kids to ride bikes or recognized his mother's "big, big heart for people," he said will continue to inspire him to pursue acts of generosity.
"Everyone who comes to our door, even dressed in rags, they might be blessed," he said. "Everyone deserves to be treated as special."