Since the dinner series called Sunday Suppers was launched in the spring of 2014, it has raised over $275,000 for local nonprofits.
The concept is simple; a local, upscale restaurant hosts two seatings of an evening meal where all proceeds after cost go to a nonprofit organization chosen in advance. Often, the nonprofit is working in the food justice arena, sometimes it is not. Diners who attend not only get a three-course meal with wine, but hear from a staff member or individual who has been helped by the nonprofit, and more donations are solicited at the meal.
“We get donations from local farms and purveyors and the restaurant has as few staff people on as they can,” explained Lauren Greis, co-founder of the venture. “We cover the restaurant’s costs and printing and staffing but the rest of that money goes to the organization they are partnering with, and we raise money at the event, too.”
The meals are generally served family-style, with the restaurants each putting their own spin on the overall feel of the event.
After a one-year year hiatus, the series has relaunched under the name East Bay Eats. Nothing is different about it, except that one prominent person who was formerly attached to it is no longer affiliated: Charlie Hallowell.
It was just over one year ago that 17 women who had worked in Hallowell’s restaurants made sexual harassment claims against him in a San Francisco Chronicle investigation.
“Having his name attached really made sense in the beginning and made this program a success,” said Greis. “Now the situation is more complex. But it’s clear that this work should continue, well beyond the personalities involved.”
Ever since Greis saw her first Brussels sprouts’ stalk in a market on the East Coast, she wanted to work in food.
“I’m one of those people that organizes their day around what they’re going to eat,” she said. “When I hear someone say ‘I forgot to eat,’ I think, ‘Huh? That never happens to me.’”
Greis had worked for several food justice nonprofits since moving to the Bay Area 10 years ago. She struggled with the inequality she saw; that there was such a disconnect between living in such a food-obsessed place, where attention is paid to local and artisanal ingredients and where people think nothing of spending hundreds of dollars for a meal, but where a high number of people live in so-called food deserts, where residents don’t have access to fresh produce at all.
“A lot of people spend this money anyhow to go out to eat,” she said. “What if some of this money could go to help seed the work these organizations are doing, which is so powerful?” She also saw it as a way to build bridges across different communities.
At these dinners, “diners learn more about this place we live in, and perhaps learn about a nonprofit they didn’t know about, as well as help support the work they are doing to make this a better place for everyone,” she said.
Furthermore, food is such a point of connection, among rich and poor alike, she noted.
“With some social justice issues, people may feel, for example, ‘My kids don’t go to public school, therefore that issue doesn’t seem connected to me.’ But everyone eats. It’s more intimate and personal. All of us have favorite memories around food — family meals and recipes that have been passed down, and that’s really powerful.”
Greis, who teaches gardening to preschoolers in Albany and works at the Riverdog Farm stand at the Tuesday farmers market in Berkeley, had been kicking around this idea for a while; it was at the farmers market that she first met Hallowell, and they spoke about working together in some way. When Greis pitched a dinner series that would raise money for local nonprofits, Hallowell, who, before the allegations arose, had been well-liked in the food scene and had a reputation for giving back to the community, immediately came on board.
Then the chef-owner of Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose, Hallowell knew many people who worked in food, so asking his fellow chefs to host dinners for the series fell to him.
“Because I was working with Charlie, I had instant credibility,” said Greis. What she brought to the table were her connections in, and knowledge of, the local nonprofit scene. She handled most of the logistics and often, but not always, it fell upon Hallowell to make the pitch for additional funds.
When the allegations against Hallowell surfaced, there were three dinners on the calendar. The series was put on hold, and Greis was uncertain of its future.
A year later, Greis is ready to take the reins and have it resume. She said that she had met with Hallowell to tell him that there was no reason the good work they did together shouldn’t continue, without his name attached.
East Bay Eats dinners happen every other month, on the third Sunday of the month. The next East Bay Eats takes place 5:30 and 8 p.m., Jan. 20, at Chez Panisse. Tickets are $100; proceeds will be donated to Acta Non Verba. Future hosts include Benchmark Oakland, Cosecha, Boot & Shoe Service, Bartavelle and Penrose (soon to be Almond & Oak).