In nearly four years of existence, the Healdsburg SingleThread restaurant has produced three Michelin stars, survived two devastating forest fires and, now, a pandemic. But when restaurants across the country were closed under shelter-in-place orders, the SingleThread kitchen remained open.
SingleThread price points start at around $ 300 per head in normal circumstances, with wine list prices that extend to four digits. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, their customer base has changed dramatically. Head chef Kyle Connaughton has worked with local non-profit Sonoma Family Meal disaster relief to prepare family-style food that is sent free to the most vulnerable residents of Sonoma County.
Utilizing a network of supporters with a deep pocket, the Connaughton has raised more than $ 200,000 since the beginning of the pandemic to fund a food donation program. SingleThread has also launched an evening take-out service, which charges a highly subsidized $ 75 price for a meal of four people, offering customers the choice to pay extra to support the program.
The philanthropic capital has a multiplied effect throughout the Healdsburg community, Connaughton explained: local farmers are paid for their products, the SingleThread kitchen staff who are summarized continue to work and families facing food insecurity get consistent and quality dinners.
“This is not about making money,” Connaughton said. “It’s about keeping people working and supporting people in the supply chain, from farmers to craftsmen to people who distribute and deliver food.”
Now, 16 other restaurants throughout Sonoma County have adopted the Connaughton model.
Sonoma Family Meal connects residents who face food insecurity with this restaurant donation program network.
Sonoma Family Meal, which calls itself an “emergency food network”, was founded after Tubbs Fire 2017 by Heather Irwin, a food editor at The Democratic Press in Santa Rosa. With large swaths of Sonoma Regency residential areas being evacuated or burned down, Irwin found that the local restaurant industry had an untapped desire to help.
“Many chefs ask me how they can get involved, how they can feed people, how they can bring their delicious food to people who suffer, and there really aren’t many outlets for that with existing structures,” Irwin said , whose family was displaced by fire.
Irwin and a team of volunteers set up a soup kitchen and began using local products to prepare half-pan food for anyone in need. The idea is to use food as a way to restore normalcy to families in crisis: to imitate the feeling of gathering around their own dining table.
They have since partnered with community centers such as the senior citizen centers of Vintage House and Corazón Healdsburg, a support system for low-income residents in Healdsburg.
The fall of 2019 once again plunged Sonoma District into a crisis. To control forest fires, Pacific Gas & Electric regularly cuts power for 7,000 Sonoma Regency households for long periods of time. Then, at the end of October, the Kincade Fire broke out in Geyserville, evacuating 90,000 residents and chewing more than 70,000 hectares.
“We have many families who continue to experience this, lose all the contents of their refrigerators, or farm workers are laid off, or seniors who need help,” said Irwin. “Our territory has really struggled.”
Before the pandemic, hunger was present in the daily lives of people throughout the county. A 2016 study conducted through the University of Wisconsin found that 13% of Sonoma’s population, more than 63,000 people, qualify as food insecurity. Corazón Healdsburg customer needs assessment found that hunger follows housing as the most pressing problem facing low-income urban residents, according to CEO Ariel Kelley.
“We see so many needs out there, people who are on the edge have fallen to the edge,” said Irwin.
Connaughton began donating food for the Sonoma Family Meal relief effort in 2017. When the health and economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak became clear, he proposed a new model: because large centralized kitchens and direct distribution did not allow for adequate social distance. , SingleThread staff can prepare food for residents in need.
“We just found out how to get started very quickly,” Connaughton said, once he realized the restaurant had to be close to customers. “We have produced on our farm, we have food in our fridge and I have people, let’s start cooking.”
Connaughton said the food prepared for the donation program was done at a lower cost than the SingleThread takeout menu, but with due regard to their culinary value. Offerings include a Chinese chicken salad, spaghetti bolognese, grilled pork tacos and tacos.
Sonoma Family Meal pays every restaurant $ 8 per meal. Feeding their clients through a pandemic can cost almost $ 1 million, up from $ 28,000 during Kincade Fires, Irwin said.
Even SingleThread is not spared from current economic pressures, Connaughton said. Between the quality of the material and the staff of eighty highly trained people, he said, SingleThread bears significant operating costs in exchange for its international reputation.
Given the slim margins of restaurant operations, Connaughton began asking for donations independently to fund their donation programs, reaching a network of customers which he described as financially unique solvents.
One such person is Bill Price III, owner of Sonoma-based Three Sticks wine and one of the founding investors of SingleThread. Since then, Three Sticks has been paying free food for two days. They also plan to donate $ 10 for Sonoma Family Meal from every bottle of 2020 Pinot Blanc sold.
Maral Papakhian, who manages public relations for Three Sticks, said that wine – along with the rest of Sonoma County – was guided by the ethos of “table alliance.”
“We truly believe that wine and food unite people,” he said.
Irwin and Connaughton are very close to the emotional element of serving food to people in crisis. Irwin described his reluctance to the idea of ”hot dogs and beans,” a stereotypical picture of the free food service that Connaughton likes with cafeteria food.
“We are talking about people who are under a lot of pressure, so it is very important that they (food) also bring happiness and comfort and have a lot of dignity to them too,” Connaughton said.
Kelley said that the Sonoma Family Dining program echoes the feelings of neighbors who prepare food for each other during times of personal crisis.
“People are fascinated by the quality of the food they receive,” he said. “It’s really nourishing, but also people feel like someone cares about them.”
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