For nearly three decades, local pizzeria Little Venice has been a staple in the village, dedicating itself to not just serving up good food but also holding fundraisers and providing free food to those in need. As the coronavirus continues to create uncertainty for residents, Little Venice has kept to that mission, making food available free of charge to families who need it.
Jessie Gardner and John Miexell have owned Little Venice for just the past few years, but Gardner said she continues to follow the mentality set by its founder, Steve Caywood, to be a source of support for the village and surrounding community. So, when coronavirus concerns started to culminate and families began to struggle to put food on the table, she knew she could help.
“We do a lot of donations locally ... for the schools, and we do a lot of fundraising here,” Gardner said. “As this was happening, before we shut down, a local woman had posted on Facebook that she was afraid to go out to the stores, and John and I went and bought a bunch of groceries and delivered them to her, and it made us feel really good to help.”
Not long after, Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart, in his daily Facebook updates, started to tell residents about Gardner’s efforts, and she received more private emails and messages of people in need requesting food. And when residents started to hear about this influx of need, they stepped up to help, Gardner said.
“Then, some customers and local people started giving us donations of gift cards and groceries and cash just for us to buy groceries or just to give to people to buy their own groceries, whatever they may need,” she said.
It’s only been about a week since Gardner started receiving donations and providing free food turned from a once-in-a-while thing to a regular operation, but already, she’s seen Little Venice’s efforts help many local families.
“It didn’t start off as a real big program; it just was our locals reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I know of this family that needs help. Can you help?’ And we say, ‘Yeah, of course,’” she said. “And then, some people started making donations, and we said, ‘Wow, we need some more people to help.’”
Little Venice has provided a variety of free food to families recently. Depending on family size and needs, the donations can be anything from gift cards to pizza kits – packages of Little Venice’s own dough, sauce, cheese and toppings for families to make their own pizza at home.
Hart said Little Venice is filling a growing need in the village, as COVID-19 health concerns can make it difficult for residents to get the food they need to sustain themselves.
“A lot of people are only able to go out or only want to go out when they absolutely have to, but there are certainly going to be a meaningful number of people who find themselves in a situation where there’s a lack of what’s needed in the house,” Hart said. “Any way to fill those gaps in provisions for folks is always going to be helpful.”
While Little Venice is helping families deal with coronavirus changes, it’s had to handle changes of its own. With Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring all state restaurants switch to delivery and carryout only, Little Venice had to close its dine-in area, which was a large source of revenue for the restaurant.
“We have a pretty big salad bar here, so that’s a big lunch thing for us, and obviously, we can’t have any dine-in customers, so no salad bar,” Gardner said. “That’s a really big hit for us because it’s a really big hit with everybody.”
Fortunately, Little Venice already had an established carry-out and delivery service, so adjusting to state regulations didn’t take as much scrambling as it has for other establishments. What has been difficult, however, is taking care of employees.
“The biggest challenge is making sure all of our employees are taken care of and have the hours that they need to sustain themselves and their families,” she said. “We have a hard time keeping enough projects right now. On a Friday night, we have five servers, three bus services, a kitchen full of cooks and dishwashers, bartenders – on a Friday night now, I only need two girls and a couple of cooks.”
Despite this, Gardner said she’s still committed to giving residents what they need to get by.
“We’re going through a rough time right now, but our community is super important to us, and we know that they will all be back once we are reopened for business,” she said. “They’ll all love us even more once we get back to business, and if there’s anybody that is struggling, we absolutely want to help them.”
So far, Gardner said she’s had great feedback from the community on Little Venice’s work.
“It’s been really nice for us to have our customers calling in or messaging in or posting on our walls saying, ‘I can’t wait for you guys to be open. We miss you,’” she said.
Trumansburg Area Chamber of Commerce Interim President Keith Hannon said he’s happy to see Little Venice continue to have an active role in the community despite coronavirus challenges.
“People are just clinging to any sense of normalcy they can find right now,” Hannon said. “To have a place … like Little Venice where you can still order food and walk down to Main Street, get something and you’re not just stuck in your house cooking every single meal every single day, to be able to do that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge relief to residents.”
Hart shared that sentiment, adding that he’s proud to have Little Venice as part of the local community.
“It’s great that Jessie found a way to be effective and be helpful,” he said. “I’m personally thankful to her for it, and the whole community is grateful.”
Gardner said she and Miexell are trying to stay positive and look at these challenging times as an opportunity to come back even stronger.
“We are very busy without all of this going on usually, so we don’t have time normally to really sit back and do new projects, so we’re just freshening up everything, making it a little nicer in here and making sure everything is extra clean and sanitized,” she said. “It’s a little morale boost for us and the employees to see these things taking place.”
Hannon said he appreciates the optimism from Gardner and others in the community.
“I’m just really proud that the people have really approached it from an angle of positivity and what we can do to maintain the community that we all love,” he said. “As a village official, these are the moments you realize why you live here and why you’re proud to represent the community.”
If you are in need or know someone who is in need, reach out to Gardner at firstname.lastname@example.org or message Little Venice on Facebook. All conversations are kept confidential.
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