Restaurant workers find friends – and a meal – at Caritas

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 24, 2020 8:24 AM CT | Published: March 23, 2020 6:00 PM CT

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Spencer and Kristin McMillin were on their way to Asheville, North Carolina, in an RV on March 13. They planned for a relaxing trip, dinners at local restaurants in the town they keep trying to call home.

But they came back to Memphis.

“When we got to Pigeon Forge, where we were going to stop for a few days, things had gotten really intense,” Spencer said.

They were keeping up with the news, concerned about COVID-19 and thinking about Caritas Community Center, where Kristin is the development director and Spencer was until recently the executive chef in the café, the heart of the center where anyone eats, regardless of their ability to pay, and where festive monthly wine dinners featuring local chefs are a big draw. 

“It really got us thinking, ‘What can we do to help?’” Kristin said. “It’s not only the homeless that will be suffering, but the whole restaurant community.”

So they turned around and headed west to home. On the way, they came up with the Restaurant Workers Unity Project, a plan that continued to evolve as Memphis restaurants started shutting down in droves. Then all dining rooms were temporarily shuttered by Mayor Jim Strickland on Thursday.

Now Caritas, which Onie Johns opened in 2006 in a former Masonic Lodge at Harvard and Merton in Binghampton, is serving free meals to out-of-work restaurant employees and anyone else who needs one.

“We’re not charging anyone right now,” Spencer said. “If someone wants to help, they can put money in the donation jar or go to the website and make a donation there.”

Some restaurants were still open when they went to work March 16, with Spencer back in the kitchen to help out. They had decided to shut the dining room and try curbside, still offering restaurant workers a free meal, but it didn’t take. By Thursday, they planned to go through the food they had left and shut the doors.

“But by then people heard about what we were doing, and it was also the day they shut down all the dining rooms,” Spencer said. “And all of a sudden, everyone wants to help — chefs, restaurants, farmers. We have an abundance.”

The Rendezvous donated more than 200 pounds of pork and chicken, so you can get Rendezvous nachos at Caritas. A bin with 200 pounds of sweet potatoes is sitting in the pantry, donated by a local farmer. Around lunch on Monday, someone dropped off bags and bags of deli meat and cheese. Blues City Donuts were being handed out with every order, because they delivered about 12 dozen Monday morning.

Derk Meitzler, chef at The Vault who formerly worked at Caritas, came in with gallons of crawfish soup that will be on Tuesday’s menu.

“I call it my crawfish boil soup,” he said. “It’s basically the same ingredients, but in a cream soup.

“I’ll bring something by as often as I can. Caritas has a big place in my heart. It was here for me at the right time and I volunteer here as much as I can.”

Steph Cook, who recently closed down Rawk ‘n Grub inside Growlers because of COVID-19, stopped in to see what he could do. He’ll be in the kitchen with Spencer on Wednesday.

“That day, we’ll probably do a Rawk ‘n Grub theme,” Spencer said.

On Monday, folks could get cheeseburgers, a Cobb salad, soup, a vegetable plate and a cold glass of iced tea. As always, the menu will vary daily. But now it will depend on what’s been donated.

“Every food company, every restaurateur, everyone I’ve talked to has all said the same thing: What do you need? What do you need?” Spencer said.

Greg Strope is a chef at Rizzo’s, and is one of a small number of restaurant employees who still has a job as Rizzo’s is doing curbside and limited delivery. The senior employee couldn’t get by on the reduced hours, so Strope took the job. He was at Caritas on Monday to pick up lunch and put a donation in the jar.

“The old lady is out running some errands and I thought it would be nice for me to have some food for her when she gets home,” he said. “I got a Cobb salad and a cheeseburger and we’ll split them.”

Sherianne Bangham was a server at Char until the restaurant let everyone except managers go on Thursday. She’s also a Caritas regular, a diner who pays for two meals when she buys one, at the café. It’s a practice that many adopt and part of the way the center, a nonprofit, collects funds.

“I love it here and I’ve always paid it forward,” she said. “I put a little money in the jar today. It’s not as much, but it’s a little. There are people who are a lot worse off than me.”

As for Spencer, who left as executive chef a few months ago to work on a Caritas cookbook, he’s back in the kitchen for the duration, cooking and helping to serve meals from the walk-up windows Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

“When you’re out of work and you can get a good meal free, well, that’s $10 or so a day you don’t have to spend and that adds up,” Spencer said. “So yeah, it looks like I’m working here again,” he said.

And they’ll keep working as long as they can, Kristin said.

“Unless our board or the government shuts us down, we’ll be here as long as we’re needed,” she said.


Caritas Village Spencer McMillin Kristin McMillin
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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