Wood Fire cooking for St. Paul’sPublished 9:16am Friday, September 18, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Imagine going to a community soup kitchen for a free meal and sitting down to chicken with white sauce or a pasta dish.
Thanks to Wood Fire Italian Trattoria, it happens the last Saturday of every month.
The next luncheon takes place Sept. 26 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where the perception is that the business community is always being hit up for donations, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was surprised when Larry Seurynck phoned to ask how his restaurant could help.
It was a timely call because trying to prepare a meal in St. Paul’s kitchen on Courtland Street was burning out their volunteers.
“We’ve now had it for a whole year, since last September,” the Rev. Richard Swanson, St. Paul’s rector, said Thursday morning. “We’re starting our second year. We had been providing our own meals. We’d have sloppy joes. Chili. Larry gave us a ring in May and offered to help. We jumped on it.”
Wood Fire added 50 cents to specialty pastas and entrees on its menu with the idea of “giving away as many meals as we sell,” Seurynck explained.
While such dishes as clams or wild mushroom fettuccine have yet to make an appearance, Swanson said, “We’ve had Italian sausage in red sauce and chicken in white sauce. They give us fantastic salads with parmesan cheese to put on them and the breads they make here. I’ve been asking people, ‘How did you like the meal?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh! It was great!’ ”
Community meals started off with 30 to 40 people.
In February, St. Paul’s added Dowagiac’s third food pantry, joining First Christian Church and St. Vincent de Paul.
Its neighbor at the corner of Courtland and Center Street, Federated Covenant Church, provides an emergency housing ministry on cots in the basement – particularly on winter weekends.
Stays include meals and bag lunches to go.
“We were told,” Swanson said, “that 9 percent of the food needs in Cass County are being met. Ninety-one percent are unmet. The food bank in St. Joseph studies the counties and how much food is being given versus food stamps and other forms of public need.”
“More than 50 percent of the kids in our schools qualify for free and reduced lunches,” adds Seurynck, who serves as an elected member on the Dowagiac Board of Education. “It’s really startling. There’s just such a need right now” with a recession that closed several local factories and job providers.
“For us, it’s easy,” Seurynck said. “The staff gets a lot of joy from it. We don’t add any hours of labor. It’s just something the kitchen does.”
Swanson stresses that it’s a free community meal available to anyone.
Some partake just because they enjoy socializing.
“It’s not for those who ‘need’ it,” he said. “We have community members who just come by to be with family and friends. Parishioners bring friends. We have a number of people who used to come and are now a little less frequent, but there’s also Angel Food,” a national ministry available at St. Paul’s and at Penn Friends Community Church of Cassopolis which buys food in bulk.
“You get about $50 of food for about $30,” Swanson said. “Many of the people who come to St. Paul Saturdays will also get our pantry food and Angel Food, so there are three opportunities to meet food needs in Dowagiac.”
“The parish has been so thankful about Larry,” Father Rick said. “They’ve been in awe at the quality of the food. People will come over now a little more often, knowing what the Wood Fire is sponsoring for us. We thought at first Larry meant he was going to sponsor us for June.”
There is enough demand to add a second Saturday, but Swanson said adequate volunteer manpower prevents that.
It takes 15 to 20 people to staff various crews for set-up, serving, kitchen, trash and clean-up.
“What Wood Fire is unable to give us, (the church) supplies,” such as drinks and dessert. “It’s a joint venture.”
“All we’re doing is giving away a little food,” Seurynck said. “Getting people to give up their Saturday, that’s the hard part. We have guests who put an extra five bucks in on their meal for food. It’s an extra duty for our staff, but they enjoy giving.”
Bishop Tommy Reels’ congregation at New Life Community Church in the former McKinley Elementary School has a similar ministry on the third Saturday, Swanson heard through the ministerial association.
“We put it on the last Saturday of the month for a number of reasons,” he said. “Food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants, Children) run out. On Saturday, kids who are on free and reduced lunches have an opportunity to come in with their parents and get a free meal to make ends meet.”
“It wouldn’t have been possible for us” had not his kitchen embraced the idea, Seurynck acknowledged. “When I brought it up, they said, ‘Yeah, we can do that. Saturday afternoons aren’t busy. As long as they pick up the food by 2 o’clock before we get into dinner.’ We’ve got volume capacity.”
“We were burning out” trying to consistently round up hot dish cooks in a residential size kitchen, Swanson said. “We’ve had up to 120 meals served. Last month we had 75 plates served. The majority were families. Seventy percent who come also utilize the food pantry. Some are members of faith communities and some aren’t. They kind of tell me every once in a while where they go to church. People are extremely thankful for what we do. I’m not sure we could have continued on the way we were going without the assistance of Larry and Wood Fire. And Larry brought the idea to us – that’s a blessing, that we were doing our ministry and business came to us. We didn’t have to go pound on any doors.”
Also, “We’ve had a couple of non-parishioners who are members of other churches who believe in what we’re doing and come help us out,” Swanson said. “Some folks from Victory Tabernacle.”
“And, if you can believe this,” he continued, “the Seventh-day Adventists came in in May – Saturday is the day they worship – made all the food, put everything out, had a Bible study, then served everybody. That’s another component. Midwest Energy is coming over in November, which continues the idea of businesses and community working together. It’s been an amazing blessing for us.”
“It was pretty much a blind call,” Larry said. “Rick was just the first guy I thought of when we decided we wanted to do this. I wasn’t completely aware of what they were doing, I just knew it wasn’t much work for us to make five gallons of marinara and feed some people” with everyone struggling through tough economic times.
“It’s kind of a privilege of having this business” to be able to give back to the community, whether its St. Paul Saturdays or catering Encore School of the Performing Arts’ spring show at the middle school.
“That’s the joy of having a business to me. We’re not very good at making money, but we can make food,” Seurynck laughs. “And it feels good.”