It all started with leftovers.
Cynthia Burke, of Cynthia’s Bistro on Nichols Street, was tired of wasting unused food from catering events. The vacationing clients who paid for the food didn’t want it, because they had nowhere to store it, and even if they did, it would spoil during the long trip back to the mainland. Her staff would take some for themselves, but there’s only so much meatball marinara one can eat. Putting the unused food in the freezer worked only as long as there was space.
And so Cynthia found herself throwing away good food over and over again.
“I got tired of wasting it,” she says, “I was trying to figure out how to repurpose it. And then it hit me — it was three o’clock in the morning, because that’s when everything hits me. I was lying in bed thinking, Give it away.
“Not long after that, I was having a dinner party, and I just threw the idea out there. I said ‘What do you guys think about doing this?’ And everyone else was like, ‘Oh, it’s crazy. People will think you’re a soup kitchen. You’ll have lines out the door.’ And I thought, Really?
“So I just moved the conversation along and said ‘I’m going to do it anyway.’”
And she did.
Starting in 2018, Cynthia has offered up her so-called kitchen sink dinners at least once per month — and more recently twice per month — from September through April.
“Almost everyone can find a job in the summer,” she explains. “It’s the winter when people are struggling, and that’s what I was trying to hit — those who are all of a sudden out of work, struggling, pinching pennies.”
There’s no plan for each dinner. It varies based on what’s available to Cynthia at the time, from leftover bistro and catering food to expiring items and bruised produce from Friday Harbor Market Place, as well as food donated by members of the community.
“Everything but the kitchen sink, you know?”
Turnout at each dinner is modest — usually between 30 and 40 people, who receive the meals packaged in to-go containers — but those small numbers have added up over time. Cynthia estimates that she has served at least 1,400 free meals to Islanders over the last four years.
Although the dinners generally have support from the community now, that wasn’t necessarily the case early on.
“There was some push back,” Cynthia explains. “What’s the catch? What do you want? What do you mean it’s free? I was told by someone that a few of the other restaurants weren’t happy with what I’m doing. And I said, ‘I assure you, these people are not going to your restaurant. They either don’t have the money or they’re in a state of mind where they don’t feel like being around people.’”
As it turns out, people’s reasons for picking up dinner vary widely. For some, it’s a lack of money or time. For others, the meals fulfill a need when they are physically or emotionally unable to cook for themselves. Some people stop in regularly not for themselves, but so that they can deliver a warm meal to a homebound friend or family member.
A few patrons leave monetary donations, but most do not, and that’s just fine with Cynthia. She receives enough support to pay for the boxes used to package the meals. What matters most to her is the positive impact that her kitchen sink dinners have had on the San Juan Island community.
“It’s been an interesting social study,” she says. “What I didn’t understand at first is how our actions ripple out. I’ll show up in the morning a few days after one of these dinners and all my rose bushes have been trimmed, or the front of the house will have been swept, or someone made beautiful chalk drawings all over the porch. One year I had pumpkins out front, and a few days later I saw that they had all been carved. I thought my chef had done it, so I thanked him, and he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Someone had taken my pumpkins, carved them, and put them back.”
That positive impact extends to the volunteers who help prepare, package, and distribute each dinner.
“A woman came in one day,” Cynthia says, “With fresh loaves of bread and butter, and she said, ‘My husband’s in a health crisis. I’m at home all the time. I was so excited to make bread, to do something, to give back.’ And then there’s another woman who helps out sometimes, and the last time she was here, she hugged me and cried. She said, ‘I’m so fulfilled doing this. I live by myself. I really needed some connection.’
“It’s just so uplifting, it’s just so fun. Honestly, if I could do this all the time, I would. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.”
It might be, but it’s not her only community contribution. If you’ve passed by the bistro, you may have noticed the coats out front — hanging on a small rack beneath an umbrella, moving with the breeze, waiting for their next owner. They’re free for anybody who needs or wants one, just like the kitchen sink dinners.
“I saw a picture of Amsterdam, with coats lined up along a fence,” Cynthia explains. “And I thought, That’s really clever. Why not? So I did it.”
In previous years she would take them out each morning, carefully hang them up, and then bring them all back inside in the evening.
“It was a lot of work,” she says. “And then I thought about how they’re free. I didn’t care if somebody stole one. I also wanted to honor that some people are shy. They might be embarrassed, or they don’t want to be seen taking a coat. So I just set them out here at night, and now I keep them there under an umbrella.”
That subtle change had a big effect. At least 200 coats have come and gone in the last year alone, and they’ve given Islanders a way to pass along kindness in the same way Cynthia has.
“People have been inspired to put chocolates in the pockets, or hand warmers, or gift certificates,” she says. “It’s uplifting to see people get involved when they’re given a vehicle.”
Cynthia also wants to thank everyone who has made these efforts possible.