There’s a group of female food professionals in Alabama who focus their actions and attention on the future of food in the state. Now, even as their own restaurants and livelihoods face unprecedented challenges, these women are finding ways to do what women have always done: feed people who need feeding, comfort those who need comforting.
Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI) is a professional organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality with a mission of education, advocacy, mentoring and philanthropy. Birmingham’s chapter, one of 44 worldwide, was founded in 2013 with one of the largest initial memberships in the organization’s history. Its 65 members range from restaurateurs to farmers, from recipe developers to manufacturers, from sommeliers to retailers, from photographers to food writers (this writer being one of those).
Each year, the group hosts a sunset dinner called Southern Soiree to raise money for scholarships and grants given to women of all ages, all across the state, who are pursuing careers in food-related fields.
“It’s the organization’s way of funding the future of food in Alabama,” said vice president Leigh Sloss-Cora, executive director of Pepper Place Market. “We’re committed to serving our community through food. We are supporting the community in the best way possible. We’re feeding people now, and we’re looking to the future.”
When Gov. Kay Ivey ordered a statewide shutdown, Sloss-Cora and her team quickly turned Pepper Place’s traditional farmers’ market into a drive-thru operation, keeping farmers in business and customers fed.
“A lot of other people are doing great things, too,” she said, “but the advantage we have is we are an organization of the top women in food, and we have the resources and the network to be able to make a real, measurable difference in our community. And that’s what we’re doing.”
This year’s scholarship and grant giving totaled $20,000, with $17,000 of that in scholarships to young women attending community colleges and four-year universities throughout Alabama. LDEI Birmingham awarded a $3,000 new entrepreneur grant to Jennifer Ryan, who owns Blueroot Company, a quick-healthy eatery specializing in fresh, colorful, produce-forward dishes, including salads, grain bowls, breakfast bites and superfood snacks.
But, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, some of the Birmingham Dames are taking a more personal approach to philanthropy. In ways large and small, local and regional, they are feeding and bringing comfort to front-line health workers and first responders and people who are personally touched by COVID-19.
Kristen Farmer Hall, co-owner of The Essential, a refined neighborhood café and bar in downtown Birmingham, and Bandit Patisserie, a bakery and cafe in Homewood, has combined her businesses into one online store with patio pop-ups at The Essential. So, fans can still get the Essential burger, a five-grain salad, collard greens with Conecuh bacon, wines by the bottle, strawberry basil streusel and fancy pudding cups.
She and her staff are working for the greater good, too.
“The Essential and Bandit have formed a unified team to serve the needs of health care workers and service industry professionals through philanthropic donations and sponsorships,” Hall said. “We have been able to deliver to many units at UAB, St. Vincent’s, Brookwood and Princeton.” They take items like the five-grain bowl. “It’s a fan favorite when the shop is open,” she said. “I sort of thought through what to take … if I’ve been on shift for 12 hours at a hospital, I’d actually wanted something light and refreshing, so we’ve been sending those.” Several units at Brookwood got chicken pot pies a few weeks ago, and they’ve sent curried chicken salad on housemade brioche buns.
They’ve also partnered with the plant shop Botanica and Campesino Rum to provide free meals for service industry workers. “There are several organizations that are serving as a bridge between restaurants and donors … (there) has been a wonderful amount of community support,” she said.
The response on Instagram and Facebook from recipients has been incredible, Hall said. “I think everyone is trying to find some level of comfort … in a time that’s really uncomfortable. … It’s nice even though I can’t really provide true hospitality, it still feels hospitable.
“Every delivery has been so emotional, as all of us on the front lines – each in our different way – meet for a common cause to care for those in need.”
Newk’s Eatery responded quickly to the pandemic crisis, offering contactless curbside pickup and delivery of regular menu options, as well as family meal kits. The stores also offer produce and grocery items like toilet paper.
And now Debbie Mar, director of franchise sales for Newk’s, has seen an almost overnight expansion of a companywide giving effort with discounted box meals – Hero Box Meals – going to essential workers, medical staff and first responders.
In Birmingham, Newk’s teamed up with UAB Football coach Bill Clark and his wife, Jennifer, and Heart of Alabama Chevy Dealership. They’ve partnered with Prince of Peace Catholic Church. Last week, Church of the Highlands sponsored 1,150 Hero Box Meals for 31 departments and three campuses at UAB.
It started kind of organically, Mar said, with corporate clients wanting to help front-line workers. Newk’s has rolled out a systemwide program where anyone can order online and add a Hero Box Meal to feed someone else.
“You can just do one Hero Box Meal, or you can do 20 or 30. However many you want,” Mar said. “We tally up how many are donated throughout the week and deliver them to local hospitals around each Newk’s.”
There are more than 100 Newk’s locations from Florida to Maryland to Colorado. The largest order so far has been in Birmingham. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me; Birmingham is a giving city,” Mar said.
“It’s been really exciting to watch it grow from us sitting around on a video conference call saying, ‘We’ve got to help these front-line workers. How can we make it happen?’ It’s such an uplifting feeling after those first few weeks when, as you well know, we were all just getting kicked – and we were just getting kicked hard repeatedly – with everything shutting down and scrambling for what this world looks like,” she said. “This has just been exciting. It’s hope for us, too, that we are feeling needed and we see a bit of purpose there. I don’t at all feel like this is going to be over tomorrow, but it certainly feels, for me and our team, a lot more manageable.”
Becky Satterfield, owner of Satterfield’s Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment in Cahaba Heights, and El ZunZún, which offers authentic Mexican cuisine, pivoted almost immediately to curbside service when restaurants in the state had to shut down. Her customers responded, picking up their grilled Cajun-spiced salmon, spring pea salad and brown butter brownies as well as fajita, taco or tamale family meals and cocktail kits. But Satterfield’s teams are feeding more than regular customers these days.
“El ZunZún has delivered lunches to the Brookwood Baptist’s Freestanding ER,” Satterfield said. “The COVID cases they’ve seen there were so heartbreaking for them.” Her teams have fed families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and they teamed up with BHMcares to deliver 100 lunches to UAB Hospital for health care workers.
She’s delivering meals to the fellows and staff at UAB Palliative and Comfort Care unit. “For the past six years,” she said, “I have invited the fellows to my kitchen to teach them some recipes as part of their own self-care before they move on to wherever they are going to practice. Because of COVID, we can’t get together this year, so we’re sending food to them. They are incredible human beings.”
The pandemic has inspired lots of people to action, Satterfield said. “It’s just been so palpable; you can’t help but think about it all the time and want to do something.”
Linda Croley is the founder of Bare Naked Noodles, and her handmade pastas and sauces are sold throughout the state, as well as curbside these days at her Italian market on U.S. Highway 280 in Birmingham. She and her staff and the staff at Amore Ristorante Italiano and Grace Klein Community teamed up to take 50 pans of baked ziti, fresh salad and bread to 650 health care workers at St. Vincent’s. “We fed 35 departments,” she said.
Croley also brought 600 gift bags of her dried pasta. “It was just something that we could leave them with. Something that said, ‘Thank you.’
“It was really just to give them a break,” Croley said. “You know, even if it’s half an hour, or however long, they got to eat and not worry about where (their meal) was going to come from; it was really nice to be able to help out.”
Barbara Gaines Kenyon has built her event design business, Happy Event Co., around the science of happiness. And now, she’s working with Alabama makers and small businesses to put together the Happy City Box.
The boxes are $75 and feature over $200 in locally sourced, handcrafted products in these categories: drinks, lifestyle, food, skin care, gardening, games and art.
The idea behind the boxes is threefold, she said. “There are the small businesses that can continue to sell products even when stores and markets are closed. Then there are the individuals who are receiving the boxes and the individuals who are sending them as gifts.”
The boxes are “a reflection of our city and just how giving we are,” Kenyon said. “We are already one of the most charitable cities in the United States.”
Kenyon has teamed up with fellow Birmingham Dames Kay Bruno Reed, of Everything Iz, to include Iz granola, and Croley with her Bare Naked Noodles dry pasta; she’s including gift cards from Ashley McMakin of Ashley Mac’s and Geri-Martha O’Hara of Big Spoon Creamery. Kenyon’s partnered with other local makers and businesses such as The Happy Olive gourmet food store, Wax & Tin Candles, Sugar candy store, Shalla Wista Studio jewelry, Vulcan Apparel Co., Manhattan South boutique and Hunter’s Cleaners.
“Each product is actually based on the science of happiness,” Kenyon said. All are designed (even the gift cards have colors) to make you happy, to engage your senses — sight, taste, touch, smell.
She’s especially happy about including stationery and some stamped envelopes. “This is a really special part,” she said. “Hopefully, the box will start a chain reaction of happiness. People can write letters and reach out to those who cannot get out as much as before.
“When you give something to others,” she added, “you’re actually increasing your happy hormones more than when you receive.”
Telia Johnson, owner of Telia Johnson Cakes, specializes in vintage-style cakes, not ultra-decorated or trendy, she said. These are old-fashioned layer cakes with cooked fudge icing or cooked caramel icing.
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She’s been sending some of her chocolate layer cakes to health care workers at UAB; a friend’s son is a nurse there and usually works on both COVID floors, Johnson said. “His mom has made lots of lasagna and chicken enchiladas for his group. I’m sending a few more cakes this Friday.”
She’s also sent cakes to the neonatal intensive care unit at UAB, and by the end of this week there will be cake for 100 at UAB’s emergency room. The Homewood Fire Department has enjoyed Johnson’s cakes, too.
“It’s just been a few; it’s not a big deal. I’d like to do more,” she said. “You know what? Honestly, I just think chocolate cake makes everyone’s day better. I wish I could donate a hundred. I wish I could do every week at UAB.”
Right now is a hard time for lots of people, Johnson added, “But sometimes the harder it is, the easier it is to give. That’s a weird thing. My daughter always tells me, ‘You can’t out give.’ So you keep moving; you just keep doing it.”
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She is a founding member and current president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, beverage and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food. Susan shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog.