By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Every year, famed chef Nick Ligidakis' efforts to feed the Valley's needy on Thanksgiving are gobbled up by holiday-drunk newspapers and TV stations. Owner of Nick's Cuisine of Southern Europe and its offspring, Nick's on Central, Ligidakis creates an annual mass-feeding machine that is large and well-meaning and swaddled in good publicity: For days prior to the event, Ligidakis shuts down his eateries and relies on donations, many of them last-minute, to play provider to increasing numbers of people.
Ligidakis and his flocks of volunteers motored meals to more than 15,000 poor and homeless in 1993, then did the same for more than 20,000 in 1994. This year, Ligidakis promised the figure would be even higher: It butterballed to 32,000.
But all is not well in Birdland.
One Valley charity, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, says it has ended its relationship with Nick's and has encouraged the restaurateur to stop using its name in his feeding program.
"Sometimes, it does us more harm than good," says Laura Knox, the charity's community-relations administrator. The problem: When Nick's operation doesn't go smoothly, the blame can come back to haunt the charity, which also provides free meals during holidays.
"Sometimes, he doesn't get the food to the people, and we have to go back and clean up after him," Knox says.
This year, an estimated 4,000 people were left waiting for undelivered meals either the day before Thanksgiving or on the holiday itself. About half of them reside in the Garfield neighborhood, just east of downtown Phoenix.
The snafu affected about 130 families whose children attend Garfield Elementary School, in the heart of the neighborhood. In a case of particularly fowl timing, the turkey troubles also clawed into efforts by the school to repair its relations with parents--relations that had been damaged when the district canned a popular principal last year.
"Unfortunately, it unfairly affected the credibility of the school and its staff," says Paul Arter, president of the school's parent-teacher organization. "In people's minds, whoever makes the promise is the person you hold accountable."
Cathy Maiden, a senior services supervisor for the City of Phoenix Human Services Department, referred names she gathered from Valley social workers, including those at Garfield, to Ligidakis.
She says Nick's bit off a bigger chunk of charity than it could chew.
"[Nick's] asked me to get the word out to a greater degree," she says. "And that I did. There was just a lot more interest in the program than anyone ever anticipated."
Maiden says, in all, she referred 23,000 people to the restaurateur.
But Ligidakis says he and his general manager, Kathy Clarke, emphasized to Maiden that there was a limit to his generosity. "We told the city that 16,000 referrals was all we could handle," he says.
Ligidakis is, of course, chagrined by the turkey shortfall. But he also groans that not all the people referred for free meals really needed the turkey dinners. For example, he says, even workers at a social-service agency requested a free Thanksgiving meal.
"That is not," he says, "what my program is about."
Alice Mendoza lives in a decent house in the Garfield neighborhood, the kind of house that stands as a model to the community--nicely kept yard, big, bad dog. It took a few city-sponsored renovations and a neighbor skilled in carpentry to make the home what it is now.
With her husband, Margarito, making only $600 a month in yard work, Mendoza says her family has been surviving on food stamps.
So when school social workers told her about the turkey dinner available from Nick's Cuisine, she decided to go for it rather than try to come up with the $25 to $30 needed to buy Thanksgiving fixings at the supermarket. "I'm in need to a certain extent," she says.
School social workers gave Mendoza and other parents forms to fill out, stating the size of their families and whether they wanted to receive uncooked ingredients on Wednesday or a cooked meal on Thanksgiving Day. Ligidakis began offering this choice when the feeding program grew too large to handle in one day.
Mendoza signed up for Wednesday's uncooked meal.
As the school social worker suggested, she made sure to be home between 8 a.m. and 5p.m. Wednesday to receive the delivery. Five o'clock came and went.
At about 7:15, there was a knock. Mendoza cleared off her table in preparation and opened the door to find a man offering her a grocery-style plastic bag.
Inside the bag, she says--for her family of seven--was half of a small turkey, a 16ounce can of cranberry sauce, a four-ounce container of potato flakes and a small bag of breadcrumbs. The turkey was cooked on the outside, she says, but raw and bloody on the inside.
Mendoza threw the turkey out, not knowing how long it had been sitting wherever it had been. "I didn't want to risk it," she says.
"I don't see how anybody could consider that a dinner," she says. "It was free, I understand. But what gets me is all those people who signed up and never got anything."
In response to approximately 130 requests referred by Garfield school workers, Nick's apparently delivered a turkey to only one family: the Mendozas. It might be said that the rest got the bird.