This has been a difficult time for everyone involved in the hospitality industry, but perhaps none more so than Evanston’s Heather Bublick and D’Andre Carter of Feast & Imbibe and Soul & Smoke, who lost their infant son Avery to illness in mid-January. For them, it’s already been an unimaginably horrible year, and it was only the love of family and their fabulous staff and friends that saw them through that ordeal. The community rallied around the young couple and their adorable daughter, two-year old Max, to help them weather those stormy seas. The ship was righted as best as it could be, and they picked themselves up and got back to work for their many clients. But now, COVID-19 has hit, and it looks to be taking the whole industry down for an undetermined amount of time. But Heather and D’Andre are choosing to take all the love that has kept them going for the past few months and pay it forward.
As with all catering firms in this tumultuous time, all bookings have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, and no one is booking out for the summer and fall as uncertainty reigns. An idea percolated up from a community member: Feast & Imbibe had the kitchen facilities, the staff, and the packaging already, so why not feed those who needed it most? It would keep their staff going and give them purpose. They jumped on the idea immediately, and started spreading the word that free meals would be available at their Evanston commissary, no questions asked, from 3-4 pm starting on March 17.
The response from the community has been overwhelming, both in terms of generous donors and the number of people in need. After seven years of full-service catering with Feast & Imbibe and two of drop-off catering with the more casual Soul & Smoke, they are a trusted Evanston and North Shore resource. “We have enough connections in the [5thWard] neighborhood that we have been able to match the food donations to those most in need, and the majority of them are families,” says Heather. They have been working with social workers in District 65, who are sending school children and parents their way, and they’ve seen many unemployed hospitality workers as well. Over 500 free meals — Friday’s was braised chicken with mushroom gravy, peas and carrots, mashed potatoes, rolls, dessert, drinks, and other snacks —were handed out at their Evanston commissary kitchen in just four days. Local bakeries like Hewn have joined the effort and have donated sweets and bread.
After Avery’s death, they had started a memorial fund at I Grow Chicago to place a bench in his memory on the organization’s Englewood Peace Campus. D’Andre lost a brother to gun violence, and connected with the idea of a healing zone filled with accessible resources for residents in that community. The Peace Campus is made up of previously vacant lots and homes, and now includes a community center, a Peace Garden, half-court basketball, and a Healing Justice Court, with a Nature Play Lot and a Family Resource House in the pipeline. Soul & Smoke is sending 50 meals a day to them as well, all underwritten by community members.
“Our whole staff is still here,” says Heather, “although everyone has reduced hours, all nine of our full-time employees are still in the building. For now, we are staying afloat.” And for that, once again, Heather and D’Andre are profoundly grateful. “Our community means everything to us,” says Heather.
As of Monday, March 23 — given the “shelter in place” edict that came through on March 21 —they will be switching to an all no-touch delivery format for anyone in need in the community. Each meal is individually packaged and cooked fresh each day, with the same attention to quality for which Soul & Smoke is known. If you are interested in supporting their efforts, you can visit their website and sponsor meals.
Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.