The COVID-19 pandemic has been a lesson in humanity for the folks at El Santo and Amaranthus restaurants.
The popular Columbia Street and River Market restaurants, both owned by New West resident Alejandro Diaz, have helped out community members on a number of different fronts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Diaz said it was hard both financially and emotionally to have to close the restaurants in March.
Having just received a large produce order for El Santo and just finished making soups for Amaranthus, he said it was important to come up with a quick strategy about what to do with all that food.
“Originally, we thought that the restaurant would be closed for just couple of weeks. Some items would last a couple of weeks but we knew that the vegetables wouldn't stay fresh for opening,” he said in an email to the Record. “We posted a few times on Facebook offering to share the soups and vegetables. The response was phenomenal. It was obvious that there were many people in need in our community.”
A few weeks later, plans were made to start selling soups as a way of staying engaged with the community.
“We decided to donate one soup from El Santo and one from Amaranthus to families in need,” Diaz said. “Then we offered three-course dinners from both restaurants and decided to keep the same structure of donating two meals. People would nominate families, and we would go and deliver that meal to those peoples in need. ‘Need’ included folks down on their luck, and an offer of a meal would show someone cared.”
During that time, Diaz said the restaurants were lucky enough to get connected and provide food for the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation and the food bank.
“One of the most rewarding moments that we had as a restaurant and as a business owner has been partnering with BC Housing to support the Lookout Society,” he said. “The Lookout Society provides housing and a social safety net to low-income individuals. The great thing about partnering with them was the ability to bring back some people to work. This relationship is very much a cost-recovery partnership on which the objective was not to make money, but also not to lose money.”
Diaz said “the break-even point” meant getting some volunteer assistance. His nine-year-old son Parker volunteers daily to help scoop, pack and deliver meals to 91 guests, and friends Rick and Melissa Fabbro help deliver the meals on the weekends.
“Another great and challenging situation has been learning what our new guests like,” he said. “It's not just about making 91 breakfasts, 91 lunches and 91 dinners – it’s about making something that they enjoy. The team has been focused creating a balanced and diverse menu while following their requests. Dave Brown from the Lookout Society told me that these folks will have a chance to try a culturally diverse menu.”
Diaz said he has thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet people connected to the program. He’s also grateful for the support his restaurants have received from community members who have been “very generous” in providing extra items for the meals, such as desserts.
“The whole experience is a lesson for us all. These people are not homeless people or needy people. They are people without a home or people with economic needs. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a name,” Diaz said. “The good story attached to having to close the restaurants is we got the chance to remind ourselves of this lesson. And also know that, but for any number of simple twists of fate, we all could be people without a home or in economic need.”