Lending a hand to our neighbors in need

By Brandon Hernández

While the wildfires raging throughout San Diego County are geographically removed from the La Jolla area, they have pulled at the heartstrings and tested the mettle of the community all the same, and its citizens will be proud to know that local businesses passed this test with flying colors by giving of themselves whole-heartedly to support victims of this natural disaster as well as those combating it.

Possibly the most extensive fire incident in California history, the Witch Creek, Harris, Poomacha, Rice and Horno fires have burned a total of 360,000 acres countywide, destroyed more than 2,300 homes and structures and displaced nearly half-a-million people to date. Included in that count was Terry Underwood, the general manager of NINE-TEN restaurant at La Jolla’s Grande Colonial Hotel. His family was forced to evacuate from their Rancho Bernardo home on Monday.

In spite of this, it wasn’t long before he was back in La Jolla, assisting in massive outreach efforts being executed at his workplace. The Grande Colonial housed more than 120 evacuees free of charge during the fires, going so far as to provide a full breakfast buffet each morning, an equally substantial dinner buffet each night and snacks throughout the day, all of which were on the house. The hotel waived its no-pets rule to accommodate evacuees with animals and pastry chef Amy O’Hara went the extra mile as well, bringing in games from her home for children of displaced families.

“Two of our family households were evacuated,” reported Jeani Burwell, the proprietor of the Crab Catcher in La Jolla, who along with their neighbor, Trattoria Acqua, sent 150 meals and water to firefighters. That effort was mirrored by Fresh(er), who, in addition to transporting sandwiches to the fire lines, will be donating 10 percent of its total revenue through the end of October to the San Diego Red Cross.

Many restaurant owners not only directed activities, but also spearheaded their implementation. George Hauer of George’s California Modern personally delivered hundreds of meals to the Red Cross Center in Kearny Mesa three nights in a row.

One of the finest cases of leading by example was Claudette Mannix of the La Jolla Brew House, who brought both her family and staff together for a myriad of humanitarian efforts. On Wednesday, she and Brew House employees took food to evacuees at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Later that day, she and her sons traveled to the Steele Canyon and Campo shelters to deliver food, bottled water, toiletries, cots, blankets, pet supplies, clothing, books and other items they had collected in the back room of their College Area home from neighbors and concerned citizens. Later, Mannix, her husband and staff members delivered even more essential items to shelters and rescue centers in Santee, El Cajon and Lakeside.

“Qualcomm (Stadium) seems to be getting the most assistance, so I am going to the smaller shelters and rescue centers,” explained Mannix before hitting the road on her ambitious mission of mercy.

Once Lachlan Oliver, the owner of La Jolla’s recently established Heaven Sent Desserts, and his staff heard about the fires, they brainstormed as to what they could do to help. “Heaven Sent Desserts was (founded) on the belief that desserts make you feel better.” His staff worked for hours on end, baking batch after batch of cookies to deliver to Qualcomm Stadium. This is particularly noteworthy because, as Oliver noted, “As a new business, I can’t afford to pay for overtime and (my employees) just stepped up with smiles on.”

But Heaven Sent’s desserts were not the only sweet relief for those battling the fires. The staff of Michele Coulon Dessertier gave their all in the form of sandwiches, cookies and other edible provisions. As Coulon put it, “We wanted to do something, and that’s what we know how to do.” And so did their fellow nearby businesses. Pizza Pronto made a large batch of pizzas to go with Coulon’s contributions and Jake Holmes from Pilates United drove the care package to firefighters in Rancho Bernardo.

“These are small things, but I am sure they will be ongoing, and seeing the feeling everyone here has toward doing anything we can, I’m sure it will become a bigger effort when we know what else is needed,” said Coulon.

And as San Diego’s restaurant and food industries pull together to do even more to raise funds to aid victims and support rebuilding efforts throughout the county, the California Restaurant Association (CRA) will be there to coordinate their energies and maximize the effectiveness and success of their efforts.

“I am very proud of my community and my peers,” said Tracy Borkum, a member of the Board of Directors for the local chapter of the CRA, the owner of San Diego’s Urban Kitchen family of restaurants (Chive, Kensington Grill, Laurel) and the individual who has served as the communications hub for the region’s restaurants over the duration of the fires. From the moment she was made aware of the need for her services, she has proven fully capable of shouldering this immense responsibility.

“I have a friend who is the director of the San Diego Red Cross. He called me at 5:30 on Monday morning and said, ‘we need food!’”

Borkum wasted no time. She sent an e-mail to a wide distribution list including just about every member of San Diego’s culinary community. “We were immediately flooded with e-mails and phone calls from restaurants offering to help in any way they could. Everyone from mom-and-pop pizza places to national chains to our food vendors.”

So, while the worst appears to be behind us where the fires are concerned, it is clear that the best is yet to come in the way of charity and outreach. There will be no shortage of opportunities for La Jolla residents to get involved and contribute to a number of organizations doing their part to restore our indomitable community.