“This was our chance to give back to the community that gave us so much.”
It’s not news that last week was extremely difficult for North Texas. Snow made itself at home across the Metroplex, and as it settled in, thousands lost power while temps were in the single digits, and many had to deal with the aftermath of frozen or burst pipes at home. Residents across Plano immediately responded with, “How can I help my neighbor?” even as many were in the midst of struggling themselves.
Restaurants gave away thousands of free hot meals, and churches opened their doors to serve as warming stations. Volunteers braved icy roads to deliver donations of clothing, food and water to those in need.
Ari Isufaj and his wife, Blinera Shurreci, owners of Bella Italia Ristorante, served more than 600 people during the winter storm. Though they were without power both at home and in their restaurant, they were able to cook on gas stoves and start serving hot meals on Monday, mainly lasagna and spaghetti.
“We started with family and friends on Monday. Tuesday we donated over 80 meals to a warming station organized by Sent Church. On Wednesday we offered to anyone that wanted a free hot meal, and asked that they pick the meals up at the restaurant,” shared Ari.
The free meals were intended to be entirely paid for by Bella Italia, but Ari said the community stepped up and donated to help them carry out their efforts.
“When the pandemic began, restaurants were hit very hard, and we were certain that we were going to lose our business. However, we were given an overwhelming amount of support by our customers and our community. When we began to get back on our feet, we decided to give back to the community for all their efforts to help us get through the pandemic,” Ari shared. He and Blinera also donated free meals to the community last Thanksgiving.
Roots Chicken Shak has given away more than 1,000 free meals to the community in the past week, and is still doing so. Beginning Thursday, co-owner and chef Tiffany Derry offered meals of chicken and dumplings, beef and vegetable soup, fried chicken, salad and fried chicken sandwiches. On top of giving away meals at the restaurant, Roots donated food to group homes, warming shelters, organizations and the City of Plano Public Works department.
“I was sitting at home feeling helpless, and cooking for others was the one thing I felt like I could do that was needed,” shared Tiffany. “We originally thought we would have to foot the bill, but once we said what we were planning to do, others wanted to help,” she said, referring to generous donations that went toward food costs.
Little Rome owner Jose Luis Escobedo immediately began offering hot meals as soon as the power was back on at the restaurant Thursday morning. Spaghetti with meatballs, bread, pizza, and soup were all available free of charge. The restaurant even allowed individuals to pick up as much as needed to deliver to neighbors, no questions asked. Jose and his team also took pizza to apartment residents affected by a fire in Frisco Thursday.
Thanks to overwhelming donations from the community, Little Rome continued offering free meals throughout the weekend. On Monday, they took pizza to the Plano Event Center and a police station. In total, Little Rome gave away more than 1,000 meals.
“Seeing the faces of the customers receiving the free meals really made us so happy. Their ‘thank you’ would make us forget how tired we were of cooking. It truly was a beautiful and unique experience,” shared Jose.
Owners Ram Mehta and Ankur Desai at In-Fretta Pizza had already built giving away free meals to those in need into their business model. That tenet held true for them last week. The restaurant lost power for three days, but a friend at Big Guys Chicken and Rice in Deep Ellum invited them to use the kitchen. The team prepared more than 1,000 meals.
Ram and volunteers also distributed food to fire stations, police departments and shelters. When Ram heard about the apartment fire in Frisco, he posted a request on Facebook for pillows, comforters and clothes, and brought donations to the people affected.
“I used to be homeless at a point in my life back in New York, so I understand hunger. My mother who passed away around the time I was starting the restaurant [made me promise her] that no one will go hungry. I am just doing what a son is supposed to do,” he shared.
Hot food wasn’t the only thing in short supply in North Texas homes. All weekend, HTeaO Plano allowed free fill-ups for residents who’d had their water turned off at home, totaling at least 500 gallons donated by the store.
“We noticed on Friday that many grocery stores were completely out,” said marketing director Shelley Hawes. “We knew that we had an abundance, and there were many people in our community in need.”
Warming Stations Offer Shelter to Residents
The Plano Overnight Warming Station (POWS) is a collaboration between local faith communities and The Salvation Army to provide emergency overnight shelter during severe winter weather, specifically for individuals experiencing homelessness. POWS saw a record-setting 126 people stay there on two of its 11 consecutive operational nights this month; last year the average number of guests per night was 55.
Locals stopped by POWS with donations of blankets, clothing, shoes, water, food and even cash. Volunteers went shopping for specific items to fill the needs of people who arrived without sufficient winter clothing, and others manned the on-site kitchen to provide meals.
“One couple called and offered to cook a spaghetti dinner,” shared Rich Holmer, POWS coordinator. “On another evening, Kirin Court Chinese restaurant provided 150 meals.” Volunteers from Custer Road United Methodist Church and nonprofit organization Bed Start provided breakfast on two mornings.
With support from City of Plano staff, Grace Church opened up as a warming station Tuesday through Thursday where residents could stay to escape their freezing homes. Plano Parks and Recreation department employees helped man the shelter and water distribution station alongside volunteers. Grace Executive Pastor Jesse Prince praised Plano City Manager Mark Israelson, city staff and the countless volunteers who were incredibly helpful in the efforts.
Collin County Chinese Fellowship Church, Sent Church and Islamic Association of Collin County also opened their doors to the community as temporary warming shelters. A substantial number of Plano residents were able to stay warm, clothed and fed last week thanks to generous neighbors.
Ari Isufaj’s sentiment is likely to be shared by most that pitched in to help, “This was our chance to give back to the community that gave us so much.”