No Fowl, Some Harm

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.

Two weeks later came the monthly meeting of the Garfield neighborhood association.

Diana Delugan, the community youth worker who enlisted the services of Garfield school counselors, apologized and tried to explain that Nick's had inadvertently overextended itself and that the school was not to blame. But the damage to the still-fragile community relations had been done. City representatives present at the meeting stayed mum.

Says Paul Arter, president of the Garfield PTO: "The sad thing was that a lot of families, if they hadn't been promised anything, probably would have made plans. Everybody could have done something, however humble that might be--a pot of beans and some menudo, whatever. They would have dealt with it.

"But it was like, if a girl was going to kick back at home on a Saturday night with nothing to do, that's no problem; but if her boyfriend asks her out, and she's sitting there all dolled up with perfume and ready to go, and he doesn't show up, that's cold-hearted."

Nick Ligidakis, the man who dishes up thousands of holiday turkeys, is not afraid to be a ham. In his storied restaurants, he has been known to issue hearty harrumphs if customers suggest a substitution in any of his rich and abundant menu concoctions. Fawning reviews say this "tall, cinema-handsome" Greek immigrant creates meals "the way Mozart made music."

But image is not everything. Ligidakis, who is in his 40s, was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1991 after back taxes and loans overwhelmed him. He's also had his share of trouble with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which fined him several years ago for hiring illegal immigrants, some of whom he later stiffed for thousands of dollars in back wages.

Ligidakis reportedly came to America on a professional soccer contract that fizzled, leaving him alive, but no longer kicking. He opened a restaurant and prospered, and he says his culinary creations come to him in his sleep, or in his car as he's driving down the road.

He does work wonders with artichokes and hearts of palm, but for one week of the year, Ligidakis concentrates his considerable energies on the creature known to science as Meleagris gallopavo--the lowly, dimwitted turkey.

Ligidakis says he lives for the Thanksgiving holiday, and not because of the attention his holiday feeding project has heaped on his restaurant. "My restaurant doesn't need publicity," he says. "My restaurant was here before this project got started."

On the first Thanksgiving of the project, he served 250 meals to the needy. Every year, the number grew, reaching into the thousands. Last year, Cathy Maiden, the Phoenix senior services supervisor, took notice and called Nick's to see if she could help. "Traditionally," she says, "he's received what he'd needed, even if it was right down to the wire."

Last year, the arrangement worked fine, and Maiden referred 2,500 requests for meals. But this year, she says, Nick's put out the call to recruit a higher number of people. "His only criteria," she says, "was people who considered themselves in need."

The application forms she devised did not inquire about a family's financial situation. And before long, they were all over the city, in the excited hands of social workers, with no screening method whatsoever.

Maiden says the city delivered the last batch of referrals to Nick's on Tuesday morning, but Ligidakis says he was getting forms as late as Wednesday night. The whole thing had waddled out of control.

With city referrals far exceeding the 16,000 Ligidakis says he asked for, drivers were struggling to keep up with demand. He went on TV to plead for more donations and volunteers. Meanwhile, referrals continued to spill in by fax; the machine was finally turned off. Nick Ligidakis was not about to say no to needy families, but some weeding was in order.

Volunteers tried making last-minute phone calls to ensure that recipients were truly needy, but many people weren't home. Other volunteers came back from delivery runs saying the people were answering their doors with portable phones in hand and nice furniture in the background. Others said the Wednesday deliveries turned out to be second meals for families who had provisions for Thanksgiving Day.

In one case, a social agency's office staff had collectively signed up for a meal.

"I didn't work for a week just to feed people who didn't need it," Ligidakis says.

By the end of the Thanksgiving holiday, Ligidakis had served an estimated 32,000 people Valleywide, including 19,000 of the 23,000 people referred by Maiden at the city's Human Services Department. But Ligidakis says the 4,000 who didn't get served ruined the free-feeding experience for him.

"His life has been hell since this happened," Maiden says. The city, she says, accepts no responsibility because she and the senior services staff who took in applications were acting as volunteers.

But, she insists, "We've nominated him for an award, and we hope he gets it."

This year, St. Vincent de Paul served more than 3,000 Thanksgiving meals at its various dining sites. The holidays typically bring a decrease in meals served because those are the times when other people step in to help--people like Nick Ligidakis.

This year's fowl fiasco, though, came back to haunt St. Vincent de Paul because of its previous associations with Ligidakis' feeding program.

"I think what he's doing is a great service tothe community," says Chris Becker, St.Vincent de Paul's director of operations. "But I received a lot of nasty phone calls from people upset they hadn't received their meals."

"When we say we're going to serve, we serve," says Laura Knox of St. Vincent de Paul. "We try not to focus so much on the numbers as on the people getting fed. I mean, that's the most important part."

Ligidakis says he'll never stop trying to feed the hungry. But next year, he says, he'll pronounce an early cutoff date to give volunteers time to verify just how needy applicants really are. He says he will personally monitor the screening process, something he wishes he'd taken responsibility for this time around.

"Too many people got involved," he says. "There were too many cooks in the kitchen, and it spoiled everything."

Maiden agrees that the screening process needs to be improved.
"I would be happy to help him develop it," she says. "I'd hate to have anyone turned off by him or this program. He has a really good heart. I don't know anyone else who would do what he does.

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Marc Ramirez