NEW GROWTH — Katina (middle) and Kyle Connaughton (right), co-owners of SingleThread, adjusted the restaurant’s regular meal price points, and are helping provide free meals for nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal.

In its nearly four years of existence, Healdsburg restaurant SingleThread has accrued three Michelin stars, survived two catastrophic wildfires and, now, a pandemic. But as restaurants across the nation are shuttering under shelter-in-place orders, SingleThread’s kitchens are staying open.

SingleThread’s price points begin at roughly $300 a head under usual circumstances, with wine list prices that stretch to four digits. Since the outset of the pandemic, however, their customer base has changed dramatically. Head chef Kyle Connaughton has been working with local disaster relief nonprofit Sonoma Family Meal to prepare family-style meals delivered free of charge to Sonoma County’s most vulnerable residents.

Tapping into SingleThread’s deep-pocketed network of supporters, Connaughton has raised over $200,000 since the beginning of the pandemic to fund the meal-donation program. SingleThread has also launched a nightly take-out service, which charges a highly subsidized $75 price for a four-person meal, offering customers the option to pay extra to support the program.

That philanthropic capital has a multifold impact across the Healdsburg community, Connaughton explained: local farmers get paid for their produce, SingleThread’s abridged kitchen staff stays in work and families facing food insecurity get consistent, quality dinners. 

“This wasn't about making money,” Connaughton said. “This was about keeping people working and supporting people within the supply chain, from the farmers to the artisans to the people who are distributing and delivering the food.”

Now, 16 other restaurants across Sonoma County have adopted Connaughton’s model.

Sonoma Family Meal connects residents facing food insecurity with this network of restaurant donation programs.

Sonoma Family Meal, which bills itself as the county’s “emergency food network,” was founded after the 2017 Tubbs Fire by Heather Irwin, a food editor at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. With large swaths of Sonoma County’s residential areas evacuated or incinerated, Irwin found that the local restaurant industry had an untapped desire to help.

“A lot of chefs were asking me how they could get involved, how they could feed people, how they could take their delicious food to people that were suffering, and there really weren't a lot of outlets for that with the existing structure,” said Irwin, whose family was displaced by the fire.

Irwin and a team of volunteers set up in a communal kitchen and began using local produce to prepare half-sheet pan meals for anyone in need. Her idea was to use food as a means of returning normalcy to families in crisis: to replicate the feeling of gathering around their own dinner table.

They’ve since partnered with community centers such as the senior citizen center Vintage House and Corazón Healdsburg, a support system for low-income residents in Healdsburg.

The autumn of 2019 once again plunged Sonoma County into crisis. To curb wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric periodically cut power to 7,000 Sonoma County households for extended periods of time. Then, in late October, the Kincade Fire broke out in Geyserville, evacuating 90,000 residents and chewing through more than 70,000 acres.

“We have many families that just go through this over and over and over again, losing all of their contents of their refrigerator, or farm workers being laid off, or seniors who are in need of assistance,” Irwin said. “Our county has really struggled.”

Before the pandemic, hunger was present in the daily lives of people across the county. A 2016 study run through the University of Wisconsin found that 13% of Sonoma residents, more than 63,000 people, qualified as food insecure. A needs assessment of Corazón Healdsburg’s clientele discovered that hunger followed housing as the most pressing issue facing the town’s lower-income residents, according to CEO Ariel Kelley. 

“We're seeing so much need out there, people that were on the edge have fallen over the edge,” Irwin said.

Connaughton began contributing food to Sonoma Family Meal’s relief efforts in 2017. When the health and economic implications of the coronavirus outbreak became clear,  he proposed a new model: since a large centralized kitchen and in-person distribution didn’t allow for adequate social distancing, SingleThread’s staff could prepare meals for residents in need.

“We just knew how to very quickly begin to mobilize,” Connaughton said, once he realized the restaurant would have to close to customers. “We have produce on our farm, we have food in our refrigerators and I have people, let's start cooking.”

Connaughton said meals prepared for the donation program are done so at a lower cost as compared with SingleThread’s takeout menu, but with close attention to their culinary value nonetheless. Offerings included Chinese chicken salad, spaghetti bolognese, barbecue pulled pork and tacos.

Sonoma Family Meal pays each restaurant $8 per meal. Feeding their clients through the pandemic could cost nearly $1 million, up from $28,000 during the Kincade Fires, Irwin said.

Even SingleThread isn’t spared from the economic pressures of the moment, Connaughton said. Between ingredient quality and a highly trained eighty-person staff, he said, SingleThread bears significant operating costs in exchange for its international reputation.

Given the restaurant's thin margins of operations, Connaughton began soliciting donations independently to fund their donation program, reaching out to a network of patrons that he describes as uniquely financially solvent.

One such person was Bill Price III, owner of Sonoma-based Three Sticks winery and one of SingleThread’s founding investors. Three Sticks has since covered the costs for two days worth of free meals. They also plan to donate $10 to Sonoma Family Meal from every bottle of 2020 Pinot Blanc sold.

Maral Papakhian, who manages public relations for Three Sticks, said that the winery — along with the rest of Sonoma County — is guided by an ethos of “table fellowship.”

“We really believe that wine and food brings people together,” she said.

Irwin and Connaughton are closely attuned to the emotional element of serving meals to people in crisis. Irwin described her aversion to the idea of “hot dogs and beans,” a stereotypical image of free meal services that Connaughton likened to cafeteria food.

“We're talking about people who are under a lot of stress, so it's really important that those (meals) bring also happiness and comfort and have a lot of dignity to them as well,” Connaughton said.

Kelley said that Sonoma Family Meal’s program echoes the feeling of neighbors preparing food for each other during times of personal crisis.

“People are blown away by the quality of meals that they're receiving,” she said. “It's really, really nourishing, but also people feel like someone cares about them.”

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