Dorchester’s Thomas Strange, 53, peddled barbecue in Memphis, charcuterie in Downtown Crossing, and po’boys on Bourbon Street, crisscrossing the country as his wife pursued a career in academia. When COVID-19 hit, he became the food pantry coordinator at Somerville’s Elizabeth Peabody House. There, he distributes fresh produce, dairy goods, and shelf-stable foods to families in need. It’s a long way from his first teenage job as a dishwasher at the Copper Kettle on Cape Cod or as a vegan baker at Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge — but, these days, incredibly fulfilling.
How did you get your start in the restaurant business?
I washed dishes at the Copper Kettle in Mashpee, Massachusetts. I was in the military for a while, not in food services, but I was always able to go back to restaurants whenever I needed them. I’ve run a couple of famous restaurants. I was the manager of The Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans on Bourbon Street — the only place to get a po’boy on all of Bourbon Street. And I was very fortunate to be a manager at Central BBQ in Memphis, Tennessee. Great barbecue joint. One of the best in the world, if you ask me.
Why did you travel all over the country?
Well, I made a deal for my woman. That’ll do it to you. She’s a professor at Northeastern now, but we when we first met, she was going to Simmons College here in Boston, and then she went to Dartmouth, and then she had a career in California, and she was a professor in Memphis. So wherever she went, I was always easily able to work in a restaurant job.
How did you end up at Veggie Galaxy in Cambridge?
My wife, who’s a strict vegan, said, ‘You’ve run a lot of restaurants, but you’ve never run one where I could eat. Could you run one where I could eat?’ So that’s why I decided to switch over to Veggie Galaxy. When I first got here, I was actually working for Roche Brothers. They had an idea for a restaurant set up in their grocery stores.
I helped them set up the first one of those. . . . They liked the idea, they loved the setup. They put a ton of money into it, and then they just went, ‘Nah.’
. . . They had this concept, and it was way too high-end. They had wanted to serve charcuterie boards in Downtown Crossing at 14 bucks a pop. And, no matter what I told them — like, charcuterie’s terrific, but it’s not going to be anything that’s going to sell more than a couple of times a week. You know, people aren’t going to stop in the middle of the day and eat charcuterie in a grocery store.
I actually met the owners of Veggie Galaxy at that restaurant. They came in, and they were having lunch with me. . . . And they enjoyed my company so much, they asked me if I’d ever been to Veggie Galaxy. And I said, ‘I go all the time. My wife’s strict vegan; she loves it.’ At the time, they didn’t need a manager, but they did have a position open for a baker, which I’ve done many times. My plan was to go there and learn how to do all the vegan baking for six months and then quit. I just wanted to learn all the vegan baking skills so I could bake for my wife. . . . And it ended up, I stayed there for four years. I loved Veggie Galaxy. It was a terrific place to work. Great clientele, different from any place I’ve ever worked before. We had a great waitstaff, great clients. We made everyone feel so welcome. It was a really good environment to work.
What’s special about Boston versus all the other cities that you’ve worked in?
Boston is like San Francisco, in a lot of ways. You can get anything you want. That hasn’t been the case in a lot of cities I’ve been in. If you’re in Memphis, you might have a choice of one place, and that’s it. That kind of selection really breeds a competitive edge. You can’t be the seventh-best pizza place on the block and survive. You’ve got to work a little bit harder because there are more choices, and that’s a big part of Boston. Boston doesn’t allow the weak fish to swim for very long.
What moved you to switch from restaurant work to a food pantry?
I was taking a little break after Veggie Galaxy. Then the coronavirus hit, and all of a sudden, I wanted to do something better, you know? More. As soon as it happened, I started volunteering here in Dorchester at a food bank. The kids weren’t able to get their school lunches. We made sure all the food that was getting delivered and being allocated for the kids, getting to them by hook or by crook.
It came to my attention that a lot of food pantries needed coordinators. I’m a history nerd, also. My degree is in history. So I found the Elizabeth Peabody House, which is an old settlement house, which has a fascinating history. They were delighted to have someone who had already been in the food industry. It’s so unusual to have someone in the kitchen who already ServSafe-qualified.
What’s your typical day like?
Monday is one of the busy days. That’s the day I go to the Greater Boston Food Bank. . . . Every other Monday, I go down, and we pick up close to 3,000 pounds for the food. We get a whole lot of our food at the Greater Boston Food Bank. And they’re terrific. We load up, we come back, we put it in our food pantry. . . . Wednesday is our big day for the handout. We spend a lot of that day making bags, putting the bags together for about 80 families that’ll come that night. We also do a lot of organizing that day, move stuff around. I’m usually there until 7 at night. That’s our long day.
What do you wish that more people understood about how food pantries work?
I was hoping you’d ask that. Don’t forget your food bank in the summertime. Thanksgiving has been super generous. People have been great about volunteering and coming down. We see that big spike between Halloween and the new year, where people are really motivated to run a food drive or get their classmates together and volunteer and help out and all these things. That’s great, but the need is just as great in June, July, and August. That’s the time when we don’t get really enough donations, because people aren’t thinking about their food bank as much. They’re thinking about summer vacation. And I totally understand that. I’m thinking about summer vacation, too. But maybe every other year, instead of donating at Thanksgiving, donate on the Fourth of July.
What about people who are in need of food right now, who might be hurting? What would you say to them?
There are so many resources available. People will help. And another thing is: I want people who don’t have all the proper documentation to know that no food bank here in Boston requires an ID. I might ask you your name, and I might ask you where you’re from to be friendly. But no one is even allowed to ask for an ID here in Massachusetts, in the Greater Boston area.
The Greater Boston Food Bank has to be very clear that we aren’t allowed to ask for ID. And I love that, because it takes some of the stress off people who are worried that if they pick up food, if they get on the list, that list might get turned over to someone who might come back and knock at the door.
If you had a crystal ball, what’s your role in a year? What will change; what will be the same?
I’m a total optimist. I really think that, within a year, a lot of us will be back to normal. Hopefully, you’ll give me a call. We’ll talk about how I have fewer guests. How we don’t have to wear masks as much. I think masks in the kitchens might actually stay for a lot longer than a lot of other places. And also if you’re going to be traveling overseas or in the wild, like crowded subways.
I think the handshake will come back. That’s been a big question for lot of my friends. As a historian, the handshake has survived a lot of plagues. I think it will survive this one.
What’s the most gratifying part of your work?
Oh, everything I do is terrific. It’s nice to just to feed people. It’s a great feeling when someone, who didn’t know that they were going to get as much as they did, that we can give as much as we have. To see their face light up because they realize that this week, at least, they’re going to be fine. That’s really gratifying.
Last question: In normal times, what are your favorite Boston restaurants?
Let me give a shout-out to the best bar on the planet, and that’s Twelve Ben’s here in Dorchester. It’s such an old man’s bar that when I go in, the average age drops by about 10 years.
Interview has been edited and condensed.