The Oregon Hospitality Foundation awarded funds to 10 Oregon restaurants currently working to feed frontline workers and vulnerable communities during the pandemic. One of those restaurants is Celilo Restaurant & Bar in Hood River, receiving $6,900 from OHF earlier this month for their twice-weekly prepared meal kits. Since the program started back in mid-March, Celilo has prepared and delivered over 1,000 meals, with the help of donations from local farms, vendors, and individual sponsors.

“There is a tremendous generosity of the human spirit that has come out of this (experience),” said Celilo chef and co-owner Ben Stenn in a video interview with OHF Executive Director Wendy Popkin. “… We’ve learned all kinds of valuable lessons, and that is that we’re a small community and we will come together, even if we can’t be together, we will come together and support each other. It’s been a powerful experience.”

The program began as a way to help Celilo staff and their families — and use up the restaurant’s perishable inventory — after Gov. Kate Brown ordered dine-in restaurants and bars to close Friday, March 17. 

Celilo’s three owners — Stenn, Maui Meyer and Jacqueline Carey — met up the following Monday to come up with a plan for getting the restaurant and it’s staff through the closure.

“We are a restaurant that honors food and cooking and the careers that we have, we think of ourselves as professionals in a lifelong career that we have chosen out of a passion for what it is that we do, so we don’t have turnover. Lots of our crew have been working with us, have been working together for five years or longer in some cases, so these people are all part of our family,” said Stenn. “And the assessment we made as business owners, as we gathered, we realized we’ve got to get everybody to the other end of this … So, we’ve got to make sure that people can survive: They have to have enough for rent and their expenses, and then they need food — and we have the food equation.”

The next day, Celilo’s cooks came back to the kitchen to start preparing meals for Celilo staff members and their families on a volunteer basis. They cooked for that same core group of people twice, before other names were added to the list.

“We got a few inquiries here and there from the crew members — ‘Hey, my neighbors are elderly and are kind of afraid to go to the store, can I bring an extra meal for them?’ … So, that’s how it happened: 50 family meals, twice a week,” said Stenn.

The cooks are volunteering their own time to keep the program running, said Stenn, adding that it has helped give them all a sense of purpose during the pandemic.

“As cooks, we are used to being busy, we are used to tight timelines and busy work schedules and days that have not enough hours to get all the things done that we need to do,” said Stenn, “And the idle nature of this (pandemic), we are not able to work, is difficult. So working in the kitchen, preparing food for people, brings a sense of purpose, and there is so much value that comes from that, there is so much satisfaction that comes from feeling like I am helping, I am doing something valuable, and we connect with people who are on the receiving end.”

Celilo’s preexisting inventory supported the program for about two weeks and since then, the program has been largely supported by local farmers, vendors, and other sponsors. Stenn recounted an interaction he had with one farmer, who asked why Stenn was buying vegetables if the restaurant was closed; when Stenn told the farmer about the meal program, the farmer offered to donate the vegetables Stenn had intended to buy. “And that has happened over and over and over again,” said Stenn. “Our farmers have come forward and have donated to our program, and it’s just awesome. I feel humbled with being a part of the experience.”

OHF funded this award, and the awards to the other nine Oregon restaurants, with proceeds from the first event in the foundation’s Takeout & A Movie fundraiser series, and support from the Grubhub Community Relief Fund.

“Being of service is at the heart of the hospitality industry,” said Popkin. “The Oregon Hospitality Foundation is proud to help raise funds and contribute to family-owned restaurants across the state who are stepping up to feed people in their communities.”

Proceeds from future Takeout & A Movie events will go towards future awards, and restaurants looking to apply can do so at www.oregonrla.org/takeoutapp.html.

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