Visionaries, restaurant owners, and childhood friends Tony Pham (Mecha Noodle Bar) and Richard Reyes (Mecha & Mezon) have embarked on a new philanthropic mission aimed at bringing the community together while fighting for noble causes.
I met Rich and Tony at their new office in the heart of Danbury. The expansive space will serve as a commune for shared ideas, bringing entrepreneurs together. This new project, they told me, is a fun deviation from the fast pace of the restaurant world. Eat/Justice is a movement of restaurants on a mission to transform taste and tradition to pride and progress. Through cause partnerships, creative events and everyday food choices, we work to keep cultural diversity strong, increase access to healthy food and empower the talented restaurant community.
I asked the two about the inspiration behind this ambitious endeavour. Pham told me that the concept had been brewing around in his mind for a while. “I’m a chef and my industry is a very stressful one. I’m also an introvert and am always thinking about new things to do. I’ve had a feeling of purpose that was greater than the restaurants,” said the chef who at just 26 now co-owns several successful food establishments. “I wanted to do something else but I wasn’t sure what it was or why, but I knew it would have something to do with philanthropy.” He traces his desire to give back and help to his childhood. His older sister had a myriad of health problems. “It makes you care about other people,” he explained and the Eat/Justice movement derived from there.
It was like a dish in the making, Pham and Reyes had the ingredients, they needed to figure out how to turn them into a recipe. They had access to restaurants but they needed to figure out the best way to make an immediate impact. “It was important to us that we were self funded,” Pham continued. “Restaurants, as a business, have funds coming in. I didn’t and don't want to take money from people.” Nor did he want to ask for donations. The two men firmly believe that if you want to donate to a cause the best way to do so is to donate directly.
Once the platform had been defined, and a cause had been identified, they decided to donate a small portion of the sales to go to their charity. Their hope is to keep growing bigger and bigger with more and more restaurants participating. “The bigger we grow, the bigger the funds are,” Reyes added. Their first charitable donation was to the Norma Pfriem Breast Care Center in October which was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They launched the program through their Mecha Noodle Bar in Fairfield. That month they decided to donate $.50 of each noodle bowl sold to their charitable cause. A newsletter was created and customers were made aware of where the proceeds from their purchases would be going. That month Eat/Justice donated $2500 to their charity. (That’s a lot of noodles!)
In November, the partners teamed up with Jessica Wong of Holbrook Farm to help her raise monies for a much needed new greenhouse. That month, by involving Mecha Noodle’s Fairfield and Norwalk restaurants they were able to raise even more money, and the farm received nearly $4,000 from this great movement. Seeing just how successful that mission was, the two then started to wonder if this could indeed become infectious. “We are a casual dining restaurant with plates that average about $17 a person. Imagine the type of impact a restaurant averaging $50 or $60 a person could make?” Pham wondered aloud.
The current campaign which began at the beginning of the month is one that the friends hope will impact and help the food industry itself. Pham explained that because it’s providing a service, he’s curious to see how it will be received by members of the community. He gave me a little insight into the newest cause. The culinary industry today has a very high suicide rate. The fast pace of professional kitchens are quite literally pressure cookers. Chefs are expected to present their best in as little time as possible. Pham and Reyes attribute this to the what they call “the new foodie culture.” Chefs are continually being judged and nowadays everyone’s a critic thus creating an environment that isn’t conducive to good mental health. “We started to research the outlets that are out there to help the chefs, servers and bartenders deal with the intricacies of being in the foodservice industry and realized there are so few organizations supporting these causes,” Pham said, and added “With breast cancer there are thousands of charities, but because this one is so new and because it is the result of a cultural trend there aren’t that many yet. Chefs with Issues is a great cause but it serves New York. There are also a couple of others doing a phenomenal job but they won’t help the restaurants here.” And so Pham and Reyes set out to create an outlet for their own community and created a campaign for this particular cause.
Pham and Reyes acknowledge that restaurants are the cornerstones of their communities. They wanted to be able to offer services to help those within the industry. Maybe the solution wasn’t a monetary one, they decided. Maybe it was service-based and so they were forced to think outside the box, something they’re quite proficient at. Pham was introduced to yoga about a year ago and told me it was a life altering experience. With yoga one has to be in the moment and concentrate on being present in the moment. “When you are in the moment you aren’t thinking about the pressure of the person judging your food or what you did yesterday or what you will do tomorrow,” he explained. When you finish a yoga session you’re instantly relaxed and you bring this calm into the kitchen with you. Additionally, the mindfulness of meditation is also about being present in one moment.” he explained. Both have powerful, positive effects.
The latest endeavor launched at Mezon’s Cinco de Mayo party at Mezon. For every empanada ordered $.50 will be contributed to the cause, or in this case toward yoga and/or meditation sessions with the hopes that the 25 people people employed at the restaurant become exposed to something new and positively impacted, hopefully for a lifetime.
It is the hope of Pham and Reyes that their Eat/Justice mission reaches out to the entire local food industry. As they embrace other restaurants to participate, they hope that those restaurants will embrace this sense of community. They’re hoping that this movement creates an excitement throughout the industry and the surrounding communities leaves behind a very well paved Eat/Justice trail. “We want to create this ethos,” Pham explained. “We think it’s going to be infectious and spark a movement. Our story is real. We are simply two progressive, young entrepreneurs who want to help others.”