All food is comfort food. It’s a notion that resonates, at least for me, all the louder during these anxious times. 191 Knickerbocker, a self-described comfort food restaurant in Bushwick, has been proving that for several weeks now by transforming their cooking real estate into a non-profit kitchen and providing free of charge meals for hard-hit Bushwick residents. Meals can be ordered on the restaurant’s website.
It’s a tale, essentially, of two professionally disparate power couples coming together to form a community-nurturing Voltron. First, there is Jesse and Rona Davis, 191 Knickerbocker’s owners. Located on the corner of its namesake street and Jefferson, they have, according to Rona, cultivated in the restaurant’s two years a strong local following, allowing the pair entré into the day-to-day lives of their neighbors.
The restaurant’s character as a social nexus clearly had an influence on the way the Davis couple chose to adapt to the new reality foisted upon all of us by the pandemic; while at first they did what countless establishments have done, i.e. limiting their business to take-out and/or delivery, the move didn’t take.
“I just realized I didn’t want to capitalize on the crisis in that way,” said Rona Davis by phone from her restaurant. “So we decided instead to re-invent ourselves and take care of the community: three hot meals a day, three days a week to anyone who’s struggling financially.”
As it turns out, the Davises were in a more convenient position than most to pivot away from profit and towards charity; the pair had already teamed up with power couple number two, Oklahoma natives Josh and Daniele Guthrie, owners of non-denominational religious organization/venue Noise Church, for a free community dinner.
Planned for March 31, the dinner was never realized. But after Rona and Jesse put the kibosh on take-out/delivery, the partnership was re-formed, with the restaurant owners handling back-of-the-house food prep, while Josh and Daniele, whose organization handles the bulk of fundraising for the enterprise, bag and tag the meals through a walk-up window on Knickerbocker Avenue.
To avoid large gatherings on the sidewalk outside, customers have been encouraged to order their meals and schedule times to pick them up on the restaurant’s website.
Listed on the same website, naturally, is the restaurant’s bill of fare, retooled and paired down for economy’s sake. The comfort food paradigm remains, but most selections, rather than representing chef Jesse Davis’ fine-dining pedigree filtered through a down home sensibility, are now just down home; caldo verde and rice & beans are two examples. Other options have included lentil soup and cauliflower rice (there’s plenty for vegetarians and vegans).
While the Davis-Guthrie coalition forms its core of organization and operations, the 191 Knickerbocker program has received additional support from other members of the surrounding community.
“Burger It Up donated two cases of potatoes, for instance,” said Rona. “The owner of The Seneca prepared chicken stew and brought it over here. And we’ve had monetary donations from Deep End and BK Jani.”
Despite the community support, running a non-profit kitchen presents formidable logistical challenges. Restaurants, after all, aren’t the only businesses forced to bob and weave around the bludgeoning fists of COVID—or cease operations all together. Plenty of grocery stores, too, have closed, while many wholesalers are now offering their services directly to individual consumers. Every Sunday sees the Davises fan out around Brooklyn looking for provisions for the coming week’s menu; many grocery stores and wholesalers are often encountered with their corrugated shutters down, or their stocks severely diminished.
After a sufficient inventory is finally collected and brought back to HQ, the 191 crew puts together a menu and makes next week’s slots available online that same Sunday evening. (Keep in mind that if you try ordering online and encounter a screen stating that a given day’s slot is no longer accepting orders, it is for that reason.)
The 191 Knickerbocker story indicates that, as hard up as restaurants and bars are in these difficult times, there is more being done by these beleaguered entities than you would assume they’d be capable of. Rona singled out another example: Family Meal For All, an organization which, in Rona’s words, “partners with restaurants to provide free meals to out-of-work restaurant workers.” The popular neighborhood seafood restaurant Seawolf counts itself among its participants.
As a charitable entity dedicated to lending the community a hand, Rona Davis and her husband are well-positioned to observe how the pandemic is affecting Bushwick’s community, both among locals and transplants.
“I see both [locals and transplants] come in. But a lot of the transplants left New York as soon as they could,” said Rona. “Quite a few people that we know. It’s scary. Everything is so uncertain.”
To avail yourself of 191 Knickerbocker’s rotating menu, visit their website. Donations, greatly appreciated, can be made there or with Noise Church owner Josh Guthrie at [email protected]. Food orders can also be made over the phone: 929- 305-3625.
Cover photo from 191 Knickerbocker Instagram
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