NAME: Jenna Arcidiacono
BUSINESS: Amore Trattoria Italiana
Amid the garbage fire that was 2020, a plucky local celebrity chef used her platform to lead the way in helping others across West Michigan while also working to reinvent her own business during a year that required flexibility and creativity for restaurants to survive.
For her generosity, leadership and advocacy for the restaurant industry in its worst year in living memory, Jenna Arcidiacono — chef and co-owner of Amore Trattoria Italiana in Comstock Park — is the Business Journal’s 2020 overall Newsmaker of the Year, as well as Newsmaker of the Year in the food category.
There’s no denying Arcidiacono made the news in 2020. She was featured by nearly every major local television station, print and online media outlet during the pandemic of 2020, and she even made national news when she was nominated by a local fan to be featured on celebrity entertainer Mike Rowe’s Facebook show, “Returning the Favor,” through which she received $10,000 to continue feeding frontline workers free of charge, as the Business Journal reported May 1.
The bubbly and extroverted chef — whose pink hair, sparkly attire and hot pink Nissan Infiniti SUV make her recognizable everywhere she goes in Grand Rapids — opened Amore a decade ago with her husband, Maurizio Arcidiacono. The pair met when she was fresh out of college in 1998 working at the famed Mona Lisa restaurant in San Francisco, and the handsome Italian stranger came to town to visit friends. Falling fast in love, within months they were touring Italy together, soon got married and spent the next three years living and cooking in Northern Italy, learning family recipes from “mama Arcidiacono,” according to Amore’s website.
Returning to Grand Rapids, they opened Amore in 2010, never thinking that they would mark their 10th year in business during a global pandemic.
Along with restaurants everywhere, Chef Jenna and her team had to quickly reinvent their fine dining establishment to serve takeout when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order to close dine-in at restaurants came down in March.
It’s been what’s keeping me going through the quarantine — being able to get up, go to work and hopefully put smiles on people’s faces, either by way of donating to their place of work or by feeding them when they come through the drive-thru.
They not only revamped their restaurant for takeout within 24 hours — and now run a parking lot drive-thru dinner pickup operation they practically have down to a science — but Arcidiacono right away began a campaign of generosity in West Michigan that inspired other community members to pay it forward and donate funds to Amore to help feed frontliners and individuals in need.
Over the past 10 months, Arcidiacono and a handful of volunteers have donated meals, aka “food hugs,” as she calls them, to Metro, Mercy and Spectrum Health hospitals; local police, fire and health departments; Rockford Ambulance; restaurants including The Mitten Brewing Co. (which did a meal swap with Amore); Kids’ Food Basket; senior citizens, veterans and families in need; and many more establishments and nonprofits.
The restaurant also partnered with other businesses and community organizations, including Meijer, i understand and Zach’s Sprinkles and Sweets, to donate food to the community.
“It’s been so hard for everyone — us included, as restaurants — we’ve all been struggling,” Arcidiacono told the Business Journal’s sister publication, Grand Rapids Magazine. “Whether you lost a job or a loved one, we all have needed some pick-me-ups during this time. So, for me, I just knew I wanted to bring a smile, and food does that for people — I like to call them ‘food hugs’ because sometimes just having an unexpected delivery can make your day.”
Arcidiacono told the Business Journal that work and giving back anchored her during an extremely emotional and difficult year.
“I think I would go crazy if I wasn’t able to work, just because I’m a people person, so I’m thrilled that I can actually come to work every day. It’s been what’s keeping me going through the quarantine — being able to get up, go to work and hopefully put smiles on people’s faces, either by way of donating to their place of work or by feeding them when they come through the drive-thru,” she said.
On top of her work feeding paying customers and donating and delivering food in person to frontliners and others in need, Arcidiacono showed leadership by using her platform to advocate for the safety and the good of the entire restaurant community in Michigan in 2020.
In July, she joined a coalition of other Grand Rapids restaurants and breweries such as The Mitten, Brewery Vivant and Long Road Distillers in creating the Michigan Restaurant Promise, a pledge that eateries across the state took to promote safe practices in their establishments to ensure the safety of customers, staff members and the general public.
After a moratorium on indoor dining due to the surge in coronavirus cases in November, Arcidiacono in December joined a group Zoom call with Gov. Whitmer advocating for additional COVID-19 relief dollars from the state to help get restaurants and laid-off workers through the winter. The conversation allowed food industry veterans to paint an honest picture of what life has been like for the hospitality sector during the past year.
“We chatted about what the timelines look like for us to get vaccines, to reopen (and) to get help,” Arcidiacono said in a Dec. 16 post on her Facebook page. “I personally asked for a potato peeler. I mentioned that this year feels like we have been asked to peel potatoes with a screwdriver. It isn’t working. We need the proper tools to get through this tough time. … We need to feel like someone is thinking about our well-being and working on funds for us.
“It was nice to have a group of people chat who are all going through the same thing. The camaraderie felt heartwarming. Mostly, I am feeling proud to have a small voice in a big state.”
On Dec. 29, the governor signed a $106 million bipartisan relief bill package that extended unemployment benefits to 26 weeks to provide support for Michigan families, frontline workers and small businesses, including Arcidiacono’s voice in the announcement.
“After Zooming a few weeks ago with Gov. Whitmer, we are thrilled that she heard our cry for help,” Arcidiacono said in the press release. “Many restaurants will not survive without financial support. This gives us hope after the devastating year we have endured.”
That month, amid the rush of planning for and filling holiday orders, Arcidiacono also joined with Chris Andrus, co-owner of The Mitten, Richard App, small business retention and attraction specialist with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, and others to promote a fundraiser launched by Thomas Schuitema, manager of Broadway Bar on the West Side of Grand Rapids, to save the iconic local establishment, which traditionally has its biggest month of the year in December. As of Jan. 10, the GoFundMe page had raised nearly $33,000 toward a goal of $50,000.
Encapsulating her attitude of helping throughout the whole of 2020, Arcidiacono told Business Journal content partner WZZM 13 that the effort was like when everyone brings money to George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” to help him out.
“We’re all in a terrible boat, sinking, but if we can’t help each other during this time, it’s not worth it,” she said.
Arcidiacono told Grand Rapids Magazine she hopes that when people see her hot pink car out and about, it will inspire them to spread love and joy.
“Being kind to one another doesn’t cost any money,” she said. “You never know what anyone is going through, so let’s come together to spread an infectious movement of positivity and compassion.”