Restaurateur reaps rewards for generosity

Amore Trattoria’s Chef Jenna Arcidiacono receives $10K surprise from reality TV star Mike Rowe for being a ‘do-gooder.’
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Chef Jenna Arcidiacono was surprised by a social media reality show with a $10,000 donation to continue her efforts to help feed essential workers during the pandemic. Courtesy Jenna Arcidiacono

Chef Jenna Arcidiacono recently received a sweet chunk of change for doing what comes naturally to her: feeding the community.

As chef and co-owner of the Alpine Township fine-dining restaurant Amore Trattoria Italiana — along with her husband, Maurizio — Arcidiacono and her team sprang into action when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order to close dine-in at restaurants came down in March.

They not only revamped their restaurant for takeout within 24 hours — and now run a seven-days-a-week parking lot dinner pickup operation — but began a campaign of generosity in West Michigan that has garnered local and national attention.

‘Returning the Favor’

On April 27, Arcidiacono was featured on Mike Rowe’s Facebook reality TV show, “Returning the Favor,” which recognizes people all over the U.S. who are making a difference in their communities.

Through nominations people submit on social media, Rowe’s team of producers help identify “do-gooders” who deserve recognition, then Rowe interviews them on camera for the show.

Unbeknownst to Arcidiacono, her regular customer and friend Ed Roehre on March 26 nominated “Chef Jenna,” as she is known locally, to be featured on the show. Her episode was called “The Unicorn Feeding the Front Lines.”

Roehre said in a Facebook post on the RTF page: “When the state ordered restaurants closed, she changed her format and started drive-up takeout service so people got good home-cooked Italian-style meals (and) also to keep as many of her employees working for as long as possible. She even started a fund people could donate to to help her staff make up lost wages. But more importantly, she started taking meals to local hospitals, first responders and assistance agencies at no cost. Many of these people are so busy they don’t have time to stop and get something to eat. She’s making sure those on the front lines are being taken care of.”

For the show, which was filmed April 24, Roehre borrowed and donned the big, pink-and-purple “Sudsy the Social Distancing Unicorn” costume that Amore staff have been wearing to make customers smile while waiting in line for takeout pick-ups.

RTF producers then surprised Arcidiacono with an interview with Rowe, complete with Roehre-as-Sudsy’s presentation of a $10,000 giant check for Amore to use in continuing its community service work during COVID-19.

Rowe, who hadn’t talked to Roehre until the on-camera interview, appeared tickled pink to be able to meet him and hear about the plan to surprise Arcidiacono.

“We are living in confusing times, and sometimes, when this level of ambiguity rears its ugly head, there’s nothing to do but suit up like a mythical creature and start handing out money,” Rowe said.

He then said to Arcidiacono during the interview: “We want to find the individuals who are mindful of what’s going on around them but also too stubborn, too determined, too wacky, too driven — and so in the spirit of all the deliveries that you’ve been doing for these past few weeks, we have a delivery for you. … You, Chef Jenna, are our hero. Thank you for doing what you do. … There’s a lot of ‘amore’ there in western Michigan because of you.”

Arcidiacono told the Business Journal the morning after the show aired that the surprise was an “amazing experience from the start to finish.”

Rowe’s producers had originally called her the week of April 20 to ask if she would do a video call with them, but they didn’t reveal what it was for.

“I had no idea,” she said. “I didn’t know that Ed nominated me until later on.”

Arcidiacono said she plans to use the cash to spread more love in West Michigan.

“(We’ll be) continuing to give back to the frontline workers. That’s what I believe they gave it to me for, and so that’s what I’m going to use it for.”

The episode featuring Chef Jenna can be viewed at bit.ly/ReturningtheFavorAmore.

Community involvement

Over the past few weeks, Arcidiacono, her team and a handful of volunteers have delivered meals to the Grand Rapids and Wyoming police and fire departments; Metro, Mercy and Spectrum Health hospitals; Kent County Health Department and Kent County Sheriff’s Office; the Muskegon Department of Veterans Affairs; Rockford Ambulance; Romence Gardens; The Mitten Brewing Co. (which did a meal swap with Amore); Kids’ Food Basket; several senior citizens and families in need; and more.

The restaurant also has partnered with other businesses and community organizations, including Meijer, i understand love heals and Zach’s Sprinkles and Sweets, to donate food to the community.

As a bubbly extrovert, Arcidiacono said she thrives on making these connections.

“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.

In addition to employees dressing in unicorn and Easter bunny costumes, Amore has been engaging people to perform live music as customers wait in their cars for their orders to be delivered. Arcidiacono also has been seen wearing roller skates, a bright pink cape and sparkly, sequined masks as she moves from the kitchen to the parking lot with food.

Although she spoke with levity, Arcidiacono acknowledged it’s been an emotional time, not just for her team, but for the entire restaurant community, which has seen about an 80% hit to revenues during the pandemic, she estimates.

“There’s a lot on the line, and so I don’t sleep very well. It’s hard to watch your friends who have restaurants that aren’t open struggle to decide — if this is going to go longer — ‘Do we reopen?’ A lot of people thought it was going to be a couple weeks. They didn’t have the long haul in their head. So it’s hard to watch that,” she said.

“I worry about a lot of places that won’t be able to reopen. That’s their lifeline, and if that gets taken away, it’s just miserable. I worry about people’s mental health, too, right now.”

Arcidiacono said one of the best things the community can do to help is to follow the EatGR Facebook page to keep tabs on which local restaurants are still open, then to continue ordering delivery and takeout if they can.

“It’s just important, if you can support local, to do so with a gift card, with takeout, with tipping the staff. They are working really hard behind the scenes. They’re in the snow, they’re in the rain, they’re coming out, and they’re putting your order together the same way. Think about how, if we support local businesses, they’ll be able to reopen when it’s time.”

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