GUILFORD — While eateries and shops around her have closed their doors, Cindy Wallace has been able to keep Cilantro Specialty Foods not only open to the public, but hopping.
Yet for Wallace, working at the store during the COVID-19 epidemic is not all about business.
She and her 21-year-old son, Austin, are volunteering to make food for the New Haven’s Columbus House, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provide meals to the homeless, in addition to individuals at risk of becoming homeless.
While Columbus House has had to suspend all volunteer-led meal service and restrict volunteers and visitors from entering their buildings, Wallace is using her commercial kitchen to prepare meals.
Currently, Cilantro’s is the only commercial kitchen assisting Columbus House with meal preparation.
Although Cilantro’s remains open to the public, it is not business as usual for Wallace. She has closed the café portion of the shop and has turned it into a tiny grocery store.
On a recent Saturday morning customers congregated, standing six feet apart, drinking coffee and socializing around the now empty self-serve milk and sugar table.
Through tears, Wallace said she is striving to keep her staff of eight employed and her customers well served.
“Maybe when this is all over, we look at life a little differently and each other a little differently and cut each other a collective break and always look to help somebody,” she said.
Toilet paper, eggs, milk, fish, meat, potatoes, oranges, flour and celery are now available in this 1,800-square-foot shop at 85 Whitfield St. This is in addition to their regular offerings of coffee, tea and prepared sandwiches, salads and side dishes.
“I think it’s fabulous,” said local resident Tricia Wilber. “The way she has really thought about what people need in the community has really sort of hit a spot.
“In terms of turning it into a grocery store, from really a café, is what we need right now,” Wilber added, “and the ability to go in and buy potatoes or eggs or lemons or fish or chicken is really important.”
Wallace is receiving daily deliveries and keeping up with demand.
She is also receiving deliveries of ham, chicken and potatoes that she will cook for Columbus House.
“The outpouring of support from our friends in the community has been incredible,” said John Brooks, chief development officer at Columbus House.
Columbus House normally serves dinner every night for 100 people in their New Haven shelter, in addition to 75 people in their New Haven overflow and 16 additional people in Wallingford during the winter. They are serving extra lunches to individuals sheltering in place and living in supportive housing.
“This is a tremendous help to our kitchen staff saving us valuable staff resources so that our kitchen manager can concentrate on the added responsibility of preparing extra meals for those who are now staying in all day at the shelter, along with meals for those who we were able to successfully move out to temporary quarters at two local hotels,” said Brooks.
The organization is also collecting donations, grocery store gift cards and paper goods to serve their clientele. (columbushouse.org)
Wallace is happy to be a part of this important mission.
“The vulnerable are so vulnerable right now,” she said. "It’s incredible and that’s the beautiful part about Cilantro, it affords me this incredible opportunity to serve and that means a lot.”
The Rev. Stephen Sledesky, pastor of Guilford’s St. George Roman Catholic Church, said that over the years many meals have been prepared by a multitude of volunteers in the church’s kitchen. Now, in light of the coronavirus, that mission has been suspended and community members, like Wallace, are lending a hand.
“It’s wonderful,” Sledesky said. “It’s everything that we hope for and preach for in our faith is that we’ll step up and help our neighbor.”
Meanwhile, inside Cilantro’s the tables and chairs have been moved to the periphery of the shop and market items are now displayed on them.
It was recent communications with a friend in Italy that prompted Wallace to rethink her business model and reconfigure Cilantro’s as an essential business along the Shoreline.
She explained they are going back to their roots. In 1990, when they opened their doors, they offered a wide variety of imported and domestic foods.
“We had a full cheese case and we sold meats and pates and gelato and sorbet and always had coffee,” she recalled. “It was a very tiny, suburban specialty food store.”
Wallace said that the store has changed over the years, while continuing to serve their customers.
“We’ve always kind of ebbed and flowed with what was happening with food in that time and right now, this is what’s happening,” she said, standing amongst her new displays.
Wallace stressed that Cilantro’s is important to her businesswise and personally.
“Personally, because it’s out 30th year and this is my life’s work, my family, my husband,” she said. “It’s our whole marriage. It’s such a big passage of time, such a marking of time.
“We truly love this town and we are so grateful that we’ve been able to, not only make a living here, but raise three boys and go through Guilford public schools and to be just enmeshed in this community is such a profound privilege,” she said, “so, closing the door really doesn’t seem right for us.”
Yet, if this does happen, Wallace has a backup plan.
“If this idea doesn’t work out and I have to close, all of this food we’re just going to keep cooking for people and just bring it to where it’s needed,” she said.
While she admitted she is exhausted, she is continuing on.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought it wasn’t going to be hopeful and hope filled,” she said. “That is what I believe.”