Comfort is a staple in the Richmond dining scene. The 15-year old restaurant is known for its elevated home-style cooking. But as of March, the restaurant has become known for something new. After paying their bills and paying their staff, the two owners have decided to donate profits to help fight hunger -- indefinitely. And for them, the cause is personal.
Michele Jones and Jason Alley co-own not one, not two, but three successful restaurants. And they’re opening a fourth. So things are looking pretty good.
But that wasn’t always the case. To this day, Jones still feels like it’s a splurge to buy oreos.
“Because for us, my sister and I, we knew that if mom had gotten the oreos that things were really looking good,” Jones says. “If (she) got those 50 cent butter cookies that look like flowers that have a hole in the middle that things were not great.”
Jones grew up in relative poverty in Virginia Beach, sometimes living in motels.
“I didn’t realize we were homeless at that point in time, until the schools told me that we were,” Jones laughs. “That was shocking to me.”
For Chef Jason Alley, her business partner, the poverty and hunger were different growing up in rural southwest Virginia.
“We ate pinto beans and cornbread and fried potatoes, for weeks at a time that would be it,” Alley says. “So I knew things were ok, somebody had gotten a job or something had gone through, my dad had painted a house or something when you got home and it smelled like meat cooking, either meatloaf or pork chops in particular.”
Those experiences with childhood hunger convinced the two to take a leap and donate all net profits from their restaurant Comfort to Feedmore, one of the largest distributors to food pantries in Central Virginia.
1 in every 6 children in central Virginia doesn’t know where their next meal will come from.
Jones and Alley want to help raise awareness of how pervasive the issue is, but also how solvable.
“You can come in and have supper and just by doing that you can feed a family of four by, really honestly, by having a bowl of pimento cheese,” says Alley.
The two are still hammering out details. They don’t know yet how much money they’ll be able to donate each quarter, and they aren’t sure how to keep communicating the cause to customers without hitting them over the head with the information.
But two months in and business is booming.
“We’re not going to make really any more money, but if the business is more stable then the staff is making more money,” Alley says. “So we think this is a model that can really work, not just here in our little 2,400 square foot restaurant, but that could be something that people do across the country and certainly across the community.”
On a recent weekday evening, the messaging is low key. A chalkboard over the bar announces the news and the staff have toured FeedMore, so they can answer any questions customers might have.
Long-time patron Gary Fletcher is waiting for his take out meatloaf at the bar.
“I just think it’s great what they’re doing. And I think their customers definitely are 100-percent behind them,” Fletcher says. “I recommend this to people all the time.”
Just a few short miles away and a different kind of kitchen is bustling. FeedMore makes more than 10,000 meals a week for seniors and children, many distributed through Meals on Wheels. Last year, the organization distributed 28 million pounds of food.
FeedMore CEO Doug Pick says this new indefinite partnership between a nonprofit and restaurant is unique within the country, and regardless of how much money the restaurant is able to give, Pick sees a huge value in the relationship.
“You simply can’t discount the connection of being associated with that restaurant, and those two owners, and their reputations and their hearts and their passions,” Pick says. “You can’t underestimate the power of that. And if you do enough of that, a lot of really good things happen eventually.”
As Michele Jones puts it: if you make it easy for people to do good, they will do good.