“This is not a time for me to be worried about my finances,” says longtime Barrio Cafe Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza. “This is a time for me to be worried about my fellow man.”
Esparza, who recently quarantined while awaiting coronavirus test results (which were negative), has been bringing chefs to Barrio Cafe each day, preparing food to be loaded into the van. The food changes daily. There are 50 to 80 family-style meals available to needy community members each evening. “A single guy could get a few days out of it,” Esparza says. “Or a family could eat dinner out of it that night. Or they could grab two bags if it’s a big family.”
Who can take from the van? Anyone. "No questions asked,” Esparza says.
When restaurants pivot even just an iota or two to community models, business can suffer to ease the suffering of others. Esparza spends a few hundred dollars a day to stock the van. She receives donations. She has dug into her bank account. “I was going to retire in two years,” she says. “Guess what? You’re going to have to put up with my annoying ass for a lot longer than I thought.”
Esparza has a history of shouldering her community. For instance, in early 2019, when the federal government shut down, she comped meals for furloughed workers. The tendency to help, she believes, is deeply rooted in her culture. “Last year, we fed federal workers,” she says. “Why? Because we’re Mexican. Because when the neighbor’s house burns down, as much as we hate that fucking bitch, we bring a pot of beans over and we feed their kids.”
Most of the cooks she’s bringing into the Barrio Cafe kitchen have Mexican roots. The roster of visiting chefs includes some big names, like an appearance from the Tacos Chiwas folks, plus plenty of homestyle cooks, like Esparza’s sister, who’s on the docket to make their mother’s recipes. (For a full schedule, see Esparza’s Instagram.)
On Monday, Chef Samantha Sanz from the now-temporarily closed Talavera came by with her Sous Chef Victor Davila and Executive Chef Chuck Kazmer. They bustled in the eerily deserted Barrio Cafe kitchen, portioning corn tortillas, spooning rice, simmering a steel vat of carne de jugo — meat braised in its juices.
“When Silvana got involved with this, she reached out to me,” Sanz says. “In a heartbeat, I was here.”
Other local restaurant operators have taken similar measures.
For one, Oren Hartman of NakedQ has been giving away a torrential stream of food for an independent restaurant owner: 700 pints of chicken soup one day, 1,000 barbecue sandwiches another — more than he sold daily before the virus. Hartman is providing these meals for health care workers, first responders, hospitality workers, delivery drivers, and “anyone who has seriously reduced earnings.”
“I’m in a position to help people,” he says. “I see this as an opportunity to give and to give some of my guys a lifeline.” Hartman is giving away barbecue spaghetti, sending sandwiches to hospitals. His Chandler restaurant has closed, but his Phoenix and Scottsdale locations remain open for takeout and for folks to grab free food. “Anyone who calls me from any organization, I’m going to give them whatever they want,” he says.
He has a restaurant under construction in the west Valley. His sales are down double digits relative to past months. “Every day I keep my restaurant open, I’m losing money,” Hartman says, noting, too, that he’s happy to be open.
When co-owner Anibal Abayneh handed free meals to people, he said many almost cried. “It’s not a time to make money,” he says. “It’s a time to support each other.”
Abayneh isn’t losing sleep over the financial ramifications. “I don’t worry nothing, because we have God here,” he says. “If you can give, that will give you more.”
Many others are providing free meals to their communities. Kaleidoscope Juices recently offered free juices and smoothies to first responders. Tacos Chiwas has posted to social media that it’ll cook for people out of food (if folks directly message ahead of time). Macayo’s has been dropping off food at hospitals, police and fire departments, and other locations. On Tuesday, Arcadia Meat Market hosted the Corny Masa food truck to cook 150 plates of carnitas for foodservice workers without jobs or with new challenges. The butcher shop, too, might do other giveaways in the near future.
The long future, for many of these chefs, has snapped into focus.
Abayneh is thinking about cooking more regularly for the elderly. The chaos of COVID-19 has freed his mindset. “It gives you so many ideas,” he says.
“I will never be the same after this,” Esparza says. “This changed the restaurant model. It changed me as a human being.”