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‘I can’t see them struggle’: Spokane steakhouse owner distributes meals to laid-off staff

Even while its doors are shut, its wine selections stand untouched and its distinctive piano sits silent, Churchill’s Steakhouse owner Bill Alles refuses to let the struggles of the business become the plight of the people who helped run it.

Alles, with help from his executive chef and management staff, started an initiative that prepares and distributes food to the restaurant’s recently laid-off staff of 45 people and their families.

“We are very close to our employees. Most of them have been with us for a lot of years, and many have children,” Alles said during a phone call Tuesday. “Some are caring for their moms or dads or both, and I can’t see them struggle. I just can’t.”

Beginning last Monday, the program has provided employees who lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic with courses like fried shrimp, beef stew and turkey, prepared by executive chef Mike Pierone and volunteers every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with immediate plans to expand distribution dates.

In many cases, this distribution hasn’t been exclusive to the waiters, hosts and cooks that make up Churchill’s.

“Next week, (distribution) will be Monday through Friday, and we hope to expand it beyond that,” Alles said. “Some of our staff have come in and said that they’ve got a neighbor who is a waitress at ‘XYZ’ and they have a couple of kids, would I mind if they picked up dinners for them? So we’re accommodating that as well.”

These measures have helped former staffers affected by the pandemic as even just the presence of a prepared meal means one less thing to worry about under uncertain circumstances.

“Knowing we can fall back on Bill and his generosity to have dinner ready for us is pretty amazing,” said Sean Freeman, who’s been a server at Churchill’s for the last four years. “It’s a lifeline and a blessing, really. It amazes me how much he does care about our family and our kids.”

Tammy Mortlock, who has worked at Churchill’s for more than five years as a hostess, echoed the same gratitude, especially after seeing the consequences for local businesses manifest in real time.

“I was actually starting to stress out a little bit because it was hitting the small businesses,” Mortlock said. “It made me think about my work and what’s going to happen with me.”

Beyond that, the meals and the security they assure for her and her children have been crucial in getting by during a time of crisis.

“I have two kids, and I have to think about them. … I am so thankful for those meals,” Mortlock said.

As for their jobs, the fears of the present have been met with the uncertainty of the future, Freeman said.

“ A lot of people in my situation, especially servers and people in the food industry, it came out of nowhere,” Freeman said. “Everything is fine, the bills are going to be paid, then all of a sudden , closed doors. And that’s the scary thing, we don’t know when we’re going to be back at work or how big of an impact this is going to have on us when the doors do open.”

As it stands, Washington state’s unemployment claims surged in the last week, adding more than 133,000 people to the state’s jobless rolls.

Nationally, some 3.28 million people filed for unemployment insurance in the last week, according to the Department of Labor.

Until the situation improves for his staff, Alles will continue to do his part to support them, according to waiter Derrick Campbell.

“Bill’s always trying to help,” Campbell said. “If there’s anything he can do to help, he does whatever he can possibly do. It’s just another example of him wanting to make sure we’re all taken care of. We’re family there.”

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