CHELSEA — Rosaivette Baez opened her restaurant, Bella Isla Cafe, two months before pandemic shutdowns began. By March of 2020, she had five employees and a bank loan to repay, and federal government aid was inaccessible.
Would her restaurant, named for the beauty of Puerto Rico and created to honor her mother’s love of cooking, be able to survive?
Half a block up Washington Avenue, the Rev. Edgar A. Gutiérrez-Duarte was facing his own crisis. For 13 years, St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church had hosted a weekly meal every Saturday, where families in need could come eat something warm and comforting. But with the pandemic hitting Chelsea particularly hard, it was no longer safe to gather that many people into one room.
And the need was greater than ever, with the food pantry seeing a surge from 90 families a week before the lockdown to about 900 a week in the early months of the pandemic.
One day in the spring of 2020, Gutiérrez-Duarte stopped by Bella Isla Cafe to pick up an order for church volunteers. He and Baez got to talking and, eventually, a partnership was born: The two would find a way to help each other survive the pandemic while also helping their community.
The church was still hosting a food pantry every Saturday, without the meal. St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal, with help from other houses of worship, could raise money and give everyone who came $6 vouchers for Bella Isla Cafe, which people could take down the street to get flavorful food of their choosing: an empanada filled with chicken or beef, arroz con gandules made with fresh sofrito, maybe some chicken stew or beans.
With about 160 vouchers a week, or an extra $960, Baez would have enough dependable income to keep her staff.
“If it wasn’t for the partnership, I think my doors would absolutely be closed,” Baez said. “They made my dream come true, and I’m grateful for them, I’m indebted to them. Anything they need, I’ll be there for them.”
The hardships that Bella Isla Cafe and St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church had to face during the pandemic were emblematic of larger struggles. Federal aid money was available to restaurants, but the system was unwieldy and difficult to navigate. Baez applied twice and was rejected, she said.
And despite increased funding to government programs meant to fight hunger, the number of people who could not afford food grew to an estimated 1.6 million adults. In a MassINC Polling Group survey released in June, about half of families with children who said they experienced hunger during the pandemic said they did not get government aid to address it. Those processes, too, were often complicated or confusing.
In Chelsea, the partnership got help from the Parish of the Epiphany in Winchester, another Episcopal church that for years sent volunteers to serve food at St. Luke’s-San Lucas every Saturday. “It was a way of engaging that had a lot of integrity, to support a restaurant in Chelsea that could then employee people, that could then remain there for the people of Chelsea,” the Rev. Nick Myers said.
Betsy Walsh, who has been a member of the Parish of the Epiphany for 23 years, saw a restaurant in Medford raising money to provide free meals for people who needed them and, after talking it over with San Lucas and Bella Isla, decided to create a GoFundMe page. Since its inception in May of 2020, it has raised almost $33,000.
“It sort of spoke to a systems shift, rather than just handing out the food,” Walsh said. It was also a way to provide comfort food to people in Chelsea.
“I thought it would be important that the meals we would be providing be more culturally appropriate,” Walsh said. “It’s a comforting feeling, when things are hard, to have something that is culturally familiar.”
Providing that familiar, comforting food was vital for Baez, she said. For her, owning a restaurant was an opportunity to introduce people not just to Puerto Rican cuisine but also to the island’s culture and people.
“By me showing them what a beautiful island that we have, I’m just opening the door for someone to learn about someone’s else’s culture,” she said.
Baez grew up in Chelsea in a Puerto Rican family and learned to cook at age 10, when her mother had to be hospitalized for a month and her father, working full time, could not cook for her and her siblings.
“My mother, who is 75 years old, is the key person who taught me everything I know today,” Baez said. “I purchased this restaurant because this has always been her dream, and I wanted her to live this dream with me.”
After a year of providing vouchers at the food pantry, donations started to taper off. By May 2021, virus case counts were declining,though the number of people visiting the food pantry every week remains at about 350, significantly higher than it was before the lockdowns. St. Luke’s-San Lucas and Bella Isla Cafe decided to do away with the vouchers and start giving people at the food pantry warm empanadas, with either chicken or beef inside.
“They have kept the cost for us almost at the point of not making any profits, which we always protest, because of the rising costs of the ingredients,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said. “Rosaivette is a very religious person. She doesn’t have any problem, any qualm, if a guest goes there and is not able to pay for any extra food. She will provide it.”
It fits with the idea of ministry as not only worship within the walls of the church, he said, but in the act of helping one another.
“In church, we call ministry the labor of the people. So I like to keep that sense, we are doing it in the name of God,” Gutiérrez-Duarte said. “For us it is very important to have beautiful worship, but for us it is also very important to support the community.”
Gutiérrez-Duarte, too, likes to walk down Washington Avenue for an empanada.
“This is what I love about Chelsea,” he said. “Ever since the pandemic my love for Chelsea has grown exponentially, because we have pulled together like no other community around.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.