Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The other side of the dark underbelly

Covering the restaurant business may not be war correspondence, but it has its unsettling experiences, be it writing about spinach poisonings (after you’ve consumed one of the brands cited by authorities as suspect), recounting the random shooting of 24 people in a Texas Luby’s, or reporting the illegal shenanigans of a CEO whom you regarded as a friend. And then there’s the story of Drago’s, the seafood restaurant in Metairie, La.

Like most of the dining establishments in and around New Orleans, the place was walloped by Hurricane Katrina last year. Two employees had insisted on staying inside the restaurant during the storm, which spared it from looting or vandalism. But they and colleagues from the area knew all that choice seafood, meat and frozen supplies they had on hand would spoil long before the restaurant could even dream of re-opening—a tragedy, given how many people in the area were without anything to eat. They figured they might as well serve it up. But here was one problem: They had no power to run a stove, oven or even a microwave.

But they improvised, doing whatever they could. Within a week, the staff was feeding the Coast Guard personnel who were struggling to plug the infamous 17th St. Levy levy breach. When Drago’s supplies ran out, proprietor Tommy Cvitanovich pressed his suppliers to pony up their supplies before that food went bad. Before long, he was hitting up every supplier and vendor he could. “We didn’t even buy from some of these people,” he would later say.

Yet the food donations poured in, as did a refrigerated trailer where the food could be kept. When locals came by for a hot meal, they’d stop by the trailer afterward to pick up cold cuts or other ready-to-eat foods they could bring to whatever shelter they were using. A trip would yield two or three meals.

It was an offer too good for the hungry and newly homeless to resist; At one point, Drago’s was feeding 3,500 meals a day, though it settled into a routine of a mere 1,500 a day. All supplied free, prepared free, and consumed for free.

As conditions improved, the restaurant raised its scope. It served 400 steak dinners to policemen, firemen and other recovery workers on Thanksgiving. And it started holding charity benefits to help out the fisherman who’d supplied the restaurant in better days. A Sunday lunch generated $21,000, all of which went to local oyster men.

By the time the restaurant was ready to resume commercial operations, it had fed an estimated 77,000 people for free.

Drago’s efforts led to its selection this year as a winner of the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Award, an honor bestowed annually on four operations that embody the association’s core principle that restaurants are the cornerstones of their communities. Yet when Cvitanovich was presented with the $5,000 check that comes with the award, he said he couldn’t take it.

Instead, he explained, the restaurant was going to match the prize with $5,000 of its own money, and pool that with the matching awards Cvitanovich had successfully solicited from three other parties in the industry. “And I’m not done yet,” he said. The funds are already earmarked for a New Orleans-area high school that had to be rebuilt. “We want to make sure it has a kitchen in it when it reopens,” so youngsters could develop the skills needed to bring the area’s renowned foodservice industry back to what it was pre-Katrina.

At check presentation, an NRA official ad-libbed that he wished the industry’s detractors would think of Drago’s social contribution before they slam the trade as a bunch of burger flippers.

A negative side effect of this job is the cynicism if fosters. Then you hear of a situation like that, and the battle-weariness lifts. You realize it’s not always about money, ego or any other of the baser motivators. The bad may still seem pretty bad, but the good seems so dramatically underscored.

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