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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Napkin rose: Owner of two catering companies navigates family tragedy

Sabrina Sorger, owner of Greenbluff Fresh Catering,  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Sabrina Sorger, owner of Greenbluff Fresh Catering, (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Megan Rowe For The Spokesman-Review

Sabrina Sorger is the owner of Greenbluff Fresh Catering and Jamaican Jerk Pan, two catering companies deeply rooted in family traditions and authenticity. Her story begins junior year of high school, when she went on a two-week trip to Jamaica with her godfather.

“I was just a farm girl country bumpkin,” Sorger said. “I wasn’t thinking I was going to get to go anywhere cool. My dad was a musician, and this was his musician friend. He called me up and he said, ‘Hey, your dad can’t go, but you want to come to Jamaica with me in two weeks?’ I started crying, this was the best thing ever.”

Sorger couldn’t have known then she would meet her future husband, that the two would go on to open an authentic Jamaican food truck, start up a catering company based on Green Bluff ingredients and have two sons who would grow up on her family’s farm. And she couldn’t have predicted that this man she loved and built her life with would suffer a tragic accident that would change life for the family forever.

Then, she was just a teen going on a trip, where she met Roian Doctor. He was also a musician, playing the steel drums in a band. After folding a rose for her from a napkin, he struck up a conversation about the differences between inflation of the Jamaican and U.S. dollar. Sorger had been used to slick pick-up lines, and she was impressed with Doctor’s confidence, intelligence, genuine nature and charisma. She said he “personified chill.” He was unlike anyone she had ever met.

Sorger had always liked working with food. At 18, she took a job at a restaurant, but decided a high-stress kitchen wasn’t for her. She attended Spokane Falls Community College and received an associate degree and associate in fine arts degree, but her heart remained in cooking.

A year and a half after her first visit, Sorger and her friend took a two-month trip to Jamaica and met up with Doctor. From there the relationship blossomed, and Sorger said she made 10 to 12 trips to visit him. In 2007, he got a visa. Only once he had to obtain his birth certificate did he learn his name was Roian, not Ryan, but Sorger said most people called him “Doc.” He played the steel drums in the U.S. for three months. He returned to Jamaica, but not long after he came back to the U.S. once more, this time for good. The couple married in fall 2007.

Doctor soon realized he couldn’t make a viable living playing the steel drums. He went on a trip to Miami with a friend, and “he waited in line for some jerk chicken that he thought was pretty crappy and came home and was like, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ ” Sorger said.

From there, the couple started Jamaican Jerk Pan in 2012, just a year after they had their first son, Lennon Doctor. The food truck mainly frequented the Browne’s Addition neighborhood. Doctor cooked everything low and slow, “braising them and just getting the most flavor out of cooking down the fat.” The spices – curry, jerk and all-purpose seasoning – come from a shop called Easispice, located in Savanna la Mar, where Doctor grew up.

“The way he cooked was all his own,” Sorger said. “He learned a little lesson from each cook in Jamaica who he thought made delicious food, and compiled those teachings into his own style. He was very particular about the process and ingredients, always looking to keep things authentic.”

Sorger is also the Greater Spokane Food Truck Association vice president, which is where she met Tony Epefanio, who is the current president. Epefanio is the owner of the Mixed Plate food truck, and his wife Nat Vargas is the chef. The truck serves Island Asian food; Vargas is originally from Thailand, but she and her parents became U.S. citizens when Vargas was 16. The family moved to Guam and started a restaurant there. Vargas and Epefanio met in Spokane because Epefanio was running Shameless Sausage, a hot dog truck, and the relationship grew from there.

Epefanio and Sorger formed a fast friendship because they bonded over serving authentic food from their spouse’s home countries.

In 2013, Sorger and Doctor had their second son, Dorian Doctor. After three seasons, the couple began realizing the demand for Jamaican food in Spokane wasn’t enough to support a food truck, and they transitioned into catering – their signatures being jerk chicken and curry chicken.

In 2015, Sorger and Doctor started a second catering service, Greenbluff Fresh Catering. Sorger’s concept behind Greenbluff Fresh was to include ingredients from the Greenbluff farms as much as possible. Her family’s farm grows apples, pears, apricots, cherries and raspberries.

She frequents Knapp’s Green Bluff Farm for extra raspberries, as well as blackberries and tayberries. She said Eleven Acres farm is very organized and has about everything else she needs. For eggs and the red pepper jelly she uses on cheese boards, she goes to Hidden Acres. The jelly is a recipe that the Hidden Acres family has perfected over several generations, said Nick Simchuk, Hidden Acres owner.

But sometimes Sorger simply drives through Greenbluff, seeing who is open and might have what she needs. If Big Barn Brewing Company is the place that happens to have potatoes that day, she goes there. She knows the farms and describes the land as sacred.

“She really does work hard to do the rounds and see what people have and see if she can use it with what she’s doing,” Simchuk said. “I don’t think there’s been anybody that has ever even come close. Maybe once a year, somebody would come up and say, ‘Hey, I want to use something,’ but she’s consistent.”

Sorger’s children are the sixth generation to live on the land. Sorger’s great-great grandfather, Ludwig Beck, came to America from Germany, and acquired 140 acres in Greenbluff as a homestead as did his two brothers. But the name on the barn is Mel Walker, Sorger’s grandfather.

Sorger’s uncle, Wayne Walker, had been working the family farm, but when he died four years ago, Sorger’s grandma – who passed away on July 10 – decided Sorger’s family should live on the farm.

“Growing up, I could have never imagined that I would move into my grandparents’ place and live as they did,” Sorger said. “I’m so grateful to my grandma.”

Sorger’s boys’ room was her mother’s room growing up, and, “the dirt they play in is the same dirt my great-great grandfather worked,” Sorger said.

Simchuk is the third generation. Simchuk and Sorger’s families have had a relationship since Hidden Acres’ inception, when Simchuk’s grandfather, George Conniff, established his fruit farm in 1970.

Simchuk said Conniff and Mel traded apples and cabbages, and later Simchuk traded the same with Wayne Walker.

“I feel really really lucky to be able to do it,” Simchuk said of working his family’s land. “For me, that’s why I’m still here, is just trying to carry on that tradition.”

Green Bluff is a tight-knit community, and Simchuk said his 5-year-old daughter plays with Sorger’s boys. Simchuk described Sorger as a “hardworking, no-nonsense Green Bluff girl.”

Family and heritage is in Sorger’s food. Some of her offerings have been handed down to her from her mother, Kathleen Larner, and her grandmother. She serves a summer salad with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion and a basil vinaigrette, which is her mom’s version of a traditional German dish called Ghurkensalat, passed on by Sorger’s grandma.

At the July 18 wedding, they served one of her mom’s recipes, cowboy corn – corn kernels sautéed with butter, chopped onion, red wine and liquid smoke.

In 2018, the family dynamic changed dramatically. Doctor was in a motorcycle accident that caused a traumatic brain injury. He was wearing a helmet, and Sorger said it was something similar to shaken baby syndrome, where his brain rattled around in his skull, shearing off nerve endings.

“I couldn’t do it,” Simchuk said of the way Sorger has handled the accident. “It’s been amazing, none of us know how she does it. It’s been a hard road, but she’s getting through. She has good people surrounding her, and I think that helps.”

The first six months after his accident were the hardest, because Sorger had no idea what her husband’s recovery would look like.

She said it wasn’t until six months had passed that it even occurred to her that she was essentially a single mother, after her brother-in-law mentioned it.

“It gets a little bit better,” Sorger said. “If I can accept that, that that’s who he is now, that person that I knew before is not going to come back, and this is who we have now, then it’s a little bit better.”

Doctor is non-verbal, in a wheelchair and requires a feeding tube. If prompted, he can answer questions, squeezing his middle finger for no, and his index finger for yes, but Sorger said he has to be prodded in order to do so.

“It’s possible that he understands everything that we’re saying, he just can’t make his mouth move,” Sorger said. “He doesn’t have expression in his face.”

In order for Doctor to receive disability benefits, Sorger had to take his name off of both businesses. Sorger knew her husband would likely never be able to work again, and at first she didn’t think she’d ever be able to cook his food.

“I did not think I could make it the same,” Sorger said. “I soon realized that trying to perfect his flavor was a way of continuing his legacy. I feel pretty confident these days that he would be proud of my replication. I think he would give me a 9/10, and he was a hard guy to please.”

All of Sorger’s May and June weddings were canceled, but things were getting back to normal. On the weekend of July 11, she had two weddings – one which was an intimate gathering of 12 people. All of the guests quarantined for two weeks before the ceremony, said groom Jason Eggerman. The wedding was held at Peone View, a Green Bluff venue, and because of that and how Sorger sources local ingredients, Eggerman said her food was an obvious choice.

“She was very down-to-earth and was always happy to answer all of our questions,” Eggerman said in an email. “The food was amazing and the catering service was very professional as well.”

Sorger also had two weddings the weekend of July 18. The kids used to help Doctor peel potatoes, and they still help their mom – for the wedding on July 18, they picked cherries and raspberries.

“Both of them seemed pretty interested in cooking and helping, so I’m hoping that eventually they’ll work for me,” Sorger said. “They like to help, they ask, ‘Can we help you?’ ”

Sorger had more than 30 events booked when Gov. Jay Inslee announced new restrictions on July 23 that still allowed for wedding ceremonies but eliminated receptions. Sorger is not overly concerned for herself because she believes many of her events can be postponed until next year. Her concern is for others in the Green Bluff community.

“The venues next to us are really just having a hard time because they have higher mortgages,” Sorger said. “They need to be able to do these weddings and they can’t just move them into next year because there won’t be a venue to do it next year if they can’t have weddings this year.”

Since it’s unclear how long this restriction will hold, Sorger hopes October weddings – the tail end of outdoor venue season – might be possible.

But the pandemic had its true impact on her family life, not her businesses. Before, Sorger and the boys visited Doctor nearly every day.

Since Doctor is in a nursing home, Sorger and the kids can’t visit him. They have window visits, and Doctor has access to a telephone, but without touch, Doctor isn’t able to communicate with them. Sorger said that during their weekly visits, they mostly utter words at him while he stares into their faces.

“If I think too hard about how Roian must feel right now, it makes me really, really, really upset,” Sorger said. “Every Monday I would take my kids there and we would have dinner with him. That was their daddy day, but, can’t do that either.”

By pure chance, Sorger went to Jamaica, her father canceling only three weeks before the flight. If that teenager knew then what she knows now, “I would do it all over again,” she said. “Never waste your pain. It’s all a learning opportunity.”

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