Chef Jenna navigates COVID-recovery with creativity, PPP, and community-centered food hugs

For folks not familiar with Amore Trattoria Italiana’s chef Jenna Arcidiacono (pronounced “R-CHEE-dee-ah-coh-no”) and her sparkling, hot pink Infinity truck often seen these days crisscrossing the city, it is understandable if you concluded upon seeing this confection-on-wheels of a ride that it was just the latest “trophy” of your local sales agent, whose home office is famous for their awarding their top performers a pink Cadillac. 

Come to think of it, you might be half correct here as Jenna’s new truck is truly a reward for a long journey on a road to becoming the food scene queen she has become today to so many in our region.

Recently, Chef Jenna, as people call her at their family-owned restaurant which she co-founded with her husband Maurizio Arcidiacono, located at 5080 Alpine NE in Comstock Park, was appropriately recognized by Grand Rapids Business Magazine as their 2020 Newsmaker of the Year.

And while a lot of pages have been written about her over the years, including a piece written by me for Solace Magazine (“Unforgettable Flavor”) in 2013, I was delighted to learn so much more as we sat down Tuesday, March 2 at Charlie’s on Plainfield Avenue - another women-owned restaurant - to talk about the journey she (and all of us) have been on this last year and how she is gearing up to continue to spread even more love for our area restaurants and to her community as we move into our next stage, which can best be described as COVID-19 recovery. 

To follow is our conversation, which has been edited for content and flow.
 
- Tommy Allen, Publisher


Tommy Allen: I know in the past we have spent a bit of time talking about your journey to opening Amore Trattoria Italiana. However, your passion for food actually began further back and long before 2010 when you opened your doors.

Jenna Arcidiacono: At a very young age, not only did I discover my passion for art, but I also started working in restaurants at the age of 14. 

TA: I recall your passion and eventual study of art while at college, but I did not know you started working so young. Any favs that stand out from that era?

JA: Actually, while at Cook’s Drive-In on 44th/Eastern and situated across the street from Steelcase, folks seeking a fast lunch would flock to the restaurant where we were quite well-known for our chili dogs. It was while there that I really started to not just cook but to enjoy experimenting with food.

TA: How so?

JA: For starters — and a lot of folks might be shocked to learn this — I was and still am a vegetarian. And while at Cook’s, the owners would not only let me try new combinations, [but] they even welcomed suggestions like my desire to see them serve vegan hot dogs.

TA: And we all know that challenge because those early meatless items were not great tasting back then as they are today.

JA: But the owners let me express my creativity in other ways, too, like when the business purchased an old van, I was able to paint the logo that I designed for Cook’s on it. 

TA: I understand you went to college on a tennis scholarship at Grand Rapids Community College before ending up at Michigan State. Did you continue to work in restaurants?

JA: I did work in places like Hearthstone at first, until they wanted to pay me in hummus, which I said before moving to Charlie King’s that I can’t buy my books with a dip made with chickpeas.

TA: I get that. I, too, worked in a lot of restaurants while in college. 

JA: While in college, I would work at restaurants learning how to cook some of my favorite cuisines like Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

TA: So how did you end up in San Francisco, where you would eventually meet Maurizio?

JA: Like many folks right out of college, I wanted to move to San Francisco because I wanted to live in a big city, to be single, and just live. it. up. And then, after three years of living in the city, I met Maurizio while working in a restaurant together and knew I was ready to be hitched. 

Like if you’ve met Maurizio, then you know what I mean; he's amazing. He's beautiful. He's handsome. He's got that Italian accent, plus he has the biggest heart on the planet. So, we just clicked. 

TA: So, at 21 years of age, he whisks you off to Italy…

JA: …where I would live for the next three years. At first, we spent the first few months in Maurizio’s mother’s apartment. His father had a garden where we would often eat from stuffing flowers we picked that would then be pan-fried. I fell in love with Italian culture, the food, and the opportunity to learn how to cook it. [Jenna looks at her phone and then says, “Maurizio is texting to make sure that I remember I have to wait tables this evening at Amore. He’s in the kitchen and my daughter at age 14 is working alongside me bussing table tonight.”]

TA: I can see that the family-style you learned in Italy is very much alive at your restaurant. How did you arrive at your location in Comstock Park?

JA: It was 2009 and it was really hard to find anything in our price range. But one day while driving by Alpine Avenue’s now closed O’Malley’s, there was a sign out front that said, “Available, call with your ideas.”

TA: Wow, it sounds like a pitch competition where the winner gets the closed eatery!

JA: We looked at it and honestly, it was not in the best of shape — a fact made evident by the nearly four months of cleaning and restoring we would engage in before we could open. But we contacted the owners with our idea. 

TA: So, what got the owner’s attention and you the space?

JA: This is the greatest story. So, it is New Year's Eve and I said, “Let me cook for you and your wife. I'll show you my passion and just see what you think.” So I made a homemade seven-course meal for them. They came to our house and they were so blown away that right then and there they handed me the keys. 

TA: That is a great story. So, while you opened in July 2010, looking back at the start of 2020, this should have been your big ten-year anniversary celebration but then COVID-19 arrives.

JA: We wanted to have a big party. But with COVID-19 already in Italy and news of Maurizio’s brother not able to leave Italy to celebrate with us, we had to cancel it. As we monitored the Italian news before COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S., I went into a serious depression. I didn't know what it was because I was miserable. I'd never felt like that in my whole life, because I'm a very upbeat person who now could not get up. And finally, I was like, “What the hell is going on with me?” I didn't want to see anybody. I stopped listening to music. I didn't want to get out of bed. That's not me. 

TA: What was happening to you because this is not who I and others have come to expect from you?

JA: It took a long time for me to realize, wow, this, this is COVID exhaustion because what, what I was doing was not, I was trying to figure out a way to make sure my business stayed alive and we didn't close. I was watching other people's struggle. I was watching people get sick and die. And it was just too much for my sensitive soul.

TA: I can understand the monitoring of foreign news sources during the first weeks of 2020 as I was getting texts from friends in Hong Kong and neighboring countries with items that were not hitting American’s front pages yet and bought an N-95 mask Jan. 26. We all saw what was happening in Italy and knew it was only a matter of time before we might see it here. What did Amore do to prepare?

JA: Maurizio was watching the news from Italy as he does every day. He said, “Jenna, I'm starting to get concerned. I'm going to take all the barstools away from the bar.” Of course, I was like what? But he insisted that we had to do something. So, Saturday, March 14, he took every barstool out from our bar. And then measured all the tables to ensure that they were all 6 feet apart. We posted it that day on our Facebook page as we were really starting to get concerned and wanted to start taking precautions to keep folks safe. And then, two days later, the shutdowns happened.

TA: So, with Amore being known as a very welcoming place for a delicious homemade Italian sit-down meal experience, did you have to close your doors?

JA: Here’s the thing, Amore is typically closed on Sundays and Mondays. When we got word of the shutdowns coming, we opened the restaurant Monday, March 15 but instead of a sit-down experience, we offered folks take out seven days a week with service from 3 - 7 p.m.

TA: I am getting goosebumps because Rapid Growth did something similar as we went from a weekly publication to publishing daily stories for months starting March 13 right after our weekly issue dropped March 12. I think being creative people in a moment of crisis, in this case, was a good thing. Care to share why you did this?

JA: You know why? Because our staff is our family, and we couldn't bear to see them not make any money. We were like, “OK, we can switch and become a takeout restaurant.”

TA: Chef Oscar Moreno, on a visit I made to his restaurant in the early months of the pandemic, shared that he cooked for his staff to ensure no one went hungry as they, too, pivoted to a focus on takeout orders. How else were you able to care for your staff?

JA: Same. Our staff always knew they were never going to be food insecure while they worked for us. We made sure seven days a week, they were bringing home one fat meal, which could be really about two or three.

TA: How did you make them feel safe?

JA: We followed all the protocols as they rolled out and shared them with our staff. This ranged from taking temperatures to wearing masks. 

TA: And a lot of folks may not know this, but you also would publish each day on your Facebook page these amazing beautiful menus.

JA: They were all handwritten. I was going home each night to work on the menu for the next day and I would create these handwritten menus to post the next day. Since I was used to late hours and now we were done so much earlier, I found that sitting down to create these menus as I did was my Zen moment. I saved them all because I want to raffle them off or sell them for a charity’s benefit someday.

TA: And you didn’t stop there as you joined so many other restaurants in our city who would deliver meals to our essential workers, which you coined as delivering “food hugs.” As busy as those times were, were you able to access any of the great programs during that time like PPP?

JA: We did. When the first one came through, we were so thrilled because we could use it for our payroll. It was honestly the only way we could have survived. I know our staff felt happy knowing they were getting a check every week and we never had to lay anyone off for the whole time because of these programs. 



TA: Let’s switch to collaboration as I know from following you on Facebook that you collaborated with a lot of other restaurants locally, who were also rapid prototyping new ideas (and often in real-time), like West Grand's The Mitten Brewing Co. who added a safe pickup window to their building as they expanded to add a second-floor kitchen. We also watched as the North Monroe neighborhood's Latinx-owned City Built Brewing Co.’s very beta partnership with SpartanNash stores who offered ready-to-eat prepared meals available right out front as you entered their neighborhood-based Family Fare stores. That same awesome spirit of collaboration is also what drove one of the biggest moments I can think of last year when your industry created the Michigan Restaurant Promise as a proactive way to calm patrons fears to get them returning to your eateries when you could start serving again but with restrictions as we were still in the grips of the pandemic.

JA: The Michigan Restaurant Promise has been the savior of our year. I mean that group has saved our lives and I would think everyone in that group would agree that we all, as a group,  helped each other through this. 

TA: I realize we are a year down the road so do you still connect with this group?

JA: We still talk every day within that group. I just got a message while we were talking about vaccines and how we're going to lobby to make sure our staff gets vaccinated as they have been working almost the whole year as front-line workers. And yet, many of these folks in the industry are like the last to be given the shot. Our discussions today are how can we ensure all our staff gets what we know they deserve. In the end, we have grown stronger as a Grand Rapids food industry community because of this group as we have become closer because of COVID-19. Yes, we share our sad stories together, but we also share happy stories, too. And it's been the blessing of the year to have that group. 

TA: Is it too soon to say, “misery loves company?”

JA: It is still company. You’re not alone with "company."

TA: Good point. This might not seem like a big deal to some but, as a former restaurant worker myself, I was quite stoked to see even after all you were fitting into a day, you still had enough energy left in your day to host on Facebook Live session nightly for many months — your Massage Chair Chronicles. Why, after all you had to do, did you decide to sit in a chair and, as you enjoyed a drink, just talk to people who dropped by to say “Hello” or to see what elixir you have concocted for your enjoyment?

JA: People were lonely. People were depressed. People were sad. All I wanted to do was come into their homes for maybe just 10 minutes to bring you a smile and say, “Hey, I had a day too. This is what's going on, but I'm here for you. Do you want to talk?” Sure, we were always going to have a cocktail and maybe a giggle. I'm going to share what's going down in my life. And you're going to message me in the chat about what's going down in yours. But we're going to be a community even though we can't be physically together. 

TA: I would imagine some folks in PR might not recommend this activity given the nature of social media these days where folks, when tired, can trip up. I personally found it refreshing to pop in, like you were watching an adult version of Romper Room where you, in this case as the host, would call folks out by name and often share a funny story about a time you had shared with them. I found it absolutely lovely and it became a favorite part of my day during the dark times of COVID. How did others react?

JA: People have stopped me on the streets and said, “Your Massage Chair Chronicles got me through COVID.” And I'm like, “Really?” They're like, “I'm not joking. I looked forward to it and it made me feel seen, loved…it made me feel good. We knew you were going through some hard times and yet you still got on there and you talked to us.” People need to feel loved and they were alone and really needed to feel it.

TA: I think that’s really what made me such a fan of your food — knowing all these years that Amore is truly about love. Were there any positives that might have been just for you in this moment since so much of your story leading up to this moment in time has been rooted in family?

JA:  Since our restaurant closed much earlier now, I would be home a little after 7:30. So before I would start my Massage Chair Chronicles, there was this block of time I hadn't had before so I got to spend it with my family — a first since we opened the restaurant. Because of this shift, we were able to have family dinner every night and our kids really loved the extra time as we could sit and talk together. We were always close as a family, but this gave us something extra where we could cook, giggle and just do stupid stuff together. 

TA: Now that the vaccines are here and being administered, what are you hopeful for or going to be pushing more in the months ahead? 

JA: Well, it is nice that we are here at Charlie’s today as it was here that we started the first of our Tip Back Thursdays, where we have been tipping restaurant workers, many of whom did not work as fully as they were used to when we had to shut down after Thanksgiving.

TA: What was the inspiration for this program?

JA: I met my friend, Jen Mitchell, whose husband is the head football coach at Grand Valley State University, for a birthday lunch because we both have January birthdays. Over lunch, I shared with Jen a TikTok video where a girl raised money via crowdfunding to share random and generous tips to servers in her town. The process was quite simple as this TikTok’er would have people send her stories and she would bring the money she raised, recording a one-minute video of the event. You could see the emotions on folk's faces as the weight of living and working so long with COVID was being lifted off people’s shoulders. Many of these folks she was giving money to were so broke because of COVID. I'm like, how can I do that here?

So as Jen and I are sitting outside on the fricking freezing patio at Charlie's having lunch, I shared how I really want to do this tip-back thing. And, in honor of our birthdays, I said I am going to post it on Facebook and just see what happens. 

TA: And?

JA: I posted on Facebook and within an hour of us drinking margaritas and eating fried goodies, we raised $1,200. Venmo’d to me. So, when I ran my credit card, I left a big $1,250 tip for the staff here at Charlie’s. And we then just left. As we walked back to our cars, the servers ran out and they're like waving and so happy shouting “Cheers!”

TA: I understand this has been going on ever since now.

JA: We just finished our eighth week delivering more than $30,000 back into the community via these tips. 

TA: This is like a micro-mutual aid for restaurant workers. I love it.

JA: Some folks were concerned about the filming of these events, but we did this because we were crowdsourcing these funds. We wanted to be upfront with how the money was being used. We wanted folks to see how these tips were bringing joy. If the video bothers you, then scroll on by. 

TA: I love how this act is bringing to light the plight of our restaurant workers in a way that is not preachy but, hopefully, inspires folks to think about the communities they interact with and how they might be able to make a difference working right from where they are. So, looking forward?

JA: I am being more intentional these days to shore up support for women-owned and historically marginalized community businesses. You have to be intentional about that moving forward as these groups are often the most adversely impacted by this pandemic. So many of these businesses I have been visiting the last two months as I ventured out, I would discover listening to their stories just how much they are like Maurizio and me. They are hoping to make enough to survive. 

TA: I noticed recently you added Motu Viget to your wine menu. What other additions are we hoping to see in the future?

JA: I would love to be a springboard for others who have a passion for this industry. Recently, I had a man ring me up asking if he could drop something off to me. So, when he arrived at the back door of our restaurant, he had a young woman who said she wanted to present a box of her treats. In this box were chocolate-covered cherries dipped in gold and the most beautiful macaroons — that are really hard to make — and all these were just beautifully presented. I immediately knew I wanted to find a way to present these in the restaurant and so now we are talking about a Mother’s Day debut. So, I really hope as we look to the future, we at Amore can continue to shine a light on our community’s food workers and what we are able to create for our city’s enjoyment. This is what the future of the food industry is about and if we can make room for others to flourish, well, that ensures we all shine bright in the process. 

____

Chef Jenna and the entire team at Amore Trattoria Italiana are currently able to serve diners inside and at 50% capacity as mandated by Michigan’s Department of Health. It is best to call ahead for seating availability. Takeout is still and will be an option for some time to come so don’t be shy when ordering up satisfaction for your craving for a fresh, homemade Italian meal lovingly prepared in Comstock Park. 

Photos of Jenna Arcidiacono were created in Michigan at Charlie's on Plainfield Avenue and are courtesy of Tommy Allen of Allen + Pfleghaar Studio at Tanglefoot
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