About a month ago, I heard a story through a friend and on social media about a man named Michael Tabrizi from Baltimore who owned a restaurant and decided to opt out of Baltimore Restaurant Week to feed the homeless instead. About a week later, I was contacted by a representative for Marriott Hotels and Visit Baltimore. They were looking for bloggers and social media influencers to #StayBaltimore for a weekend to help revive tourism there since the riots in April had depressed the city. I knew I would see some sites there and eat and drink my way around the harbor, but otherwise, planned nothing before arriving to the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, but to meet Michael and hear his story. I reached out to him on Facebook to set up a time for us to #breakbread together and talk about #HomelessRestaurantWeek.
One week before Homeless Restaurant Week, I visit Michael in his restaurant, Tabrizi’s. It’s a Lebanese and Mediterranean inspired, window-lined gem on the harbor in Baltimore facing out toward the water and the Domino Sugar factory. Voted #BestofBaltimore in 2015 and popular for hosting lots of weddings and serving family recipes for dinner, it’s made to showcase the beauty and pureness of its ingredients and bring people together over food. Simple and from the heart. Just like Michael. He pours me a glass of sauvignon blanc and we #breakbread together.
Michael, can you tell me how Homeless Restaurant Week came about?
Everything happened accidentally. I didn’t plan for this to happen. I live in the city. I moved to the city about 2.5 years ago. I leave late at night and every time I leave, I see homeless. I was stopped at a traffic light and I saw a homeless person in his chair. He had a sign, “I’m hungry. I will work for food.”
I gave him a few dollars and gave him my business card and said, “Come to my restaurant when you’re hungry and I’ll feed you whenever I’m open.”
I continued home and thought to myself, “but what about the rest? I wonder how many homeless people are in this city.” So I decided to invite 1,000 people and see what happens. The next day I posted something on my facebook page saying I needed volunteers and all my friends started responding, “Sign me up.”
I have a good friend who works for the city concierge who said, “I can take care of contacting the shelter and invite a combination of homeless veterans and non-veterans and we’ll see how it goes.”
I posted a sign on our website and Facebook and as of this morning, we have over 600 volunteers, which is just amazing. It caught national and now international media attention. I have people from Europe sending me emails saying, “Good for you.”
What is the main reason you decided to do this?
I thought it was a great thing, but the main goal was to do this and bring Baltimore back to what it was after all the riots and the curfew set.
I feel like this is bringing the city together and it’s a wonderful thing.
I know that many bars and restaurants suffered from the curfew because they remained open late at night, but people weren’t allowed out. We closed for the entire week. I didn’t want to put my guests and employees under risk. It would be impossible to operate for just a few hours and we aren’t open for lunch, so I thought since the whole city was in chaos, we would just call it a vacation. Many tourists, many companies canceled conventions in Baltimore. I think now it’s picking up. I think people are starting to come back to the city.
Who are your volunteers?
I posted the form online and everyone wanted to do something. I didn’t want to turn volunteers away, so I decided to invite all the volunteers to sit down with the homeless, have a meal, talk to them, chit chat, have an experience. Sit down and talk to a person. Feel what they feel. I think the problem with homelessness isn’t the lack of food only. They can usually find something to eat. I think the problem is that a lot of them are forgotten. A lot of them aren’t considered humans anymore. We don’t look at them as humans.
I think it’s a great thing we are doing. My employees are refusing to get paid for the week. They simply said no. There is so much love. People are friending us on Facebook from all over the world, but the most important thing is to just energize someone to do just one random act of kindness toward a complete stranger. If we all do that, I think the whole world will change for the better. With one drop a day, you can eventually fill an ocean. Not just business owners, but anybody can be kind to another person. We can have a great ripple effect on each other.
What are people donating?
I have a baker from Virginia that saw an article on the internet and he called me, his name is Michael Politano from Cardinal Bakery, Virginia. He said to that he delivers to Baltimore every day and that he wanted to deliver bread to us for the six days. I asked him if he knew how many people we were expecting to have and he said, “No problem.” From nowhere, he just said, “I’m going to do this.”
My suppliers are donating groceries, ice cream… They saw the menu and just started contributing cases. My produce guy said, “Anything I can do, just let me know.” It’s so great to see so many good people wanting to do something.
I have a lot of volunteers in the business industry. Ruth’s Chris is one of the biggest chains. One of the managers just called a few hours ago and she wants to send 20 volunteers from her restaurant to aid us. It’s love and it’s great and catching on and my wish is for it continue beyond this.
I believe there are so many charity organizations and I think from what I see, people don’t trust the system or organizations anymore. They see how many scandals there are. They look at the bottom line. What is the cost to operate and what is the final return on investment? 15 cents to the dollar? So when they see costs like this for a private person, a private restaurant doing something like this… I’m not getting a salary from my organization. I’m canceling regular restaurant week and taking a loss in revenue. I have nothing else to gain from this other than the goodness of it.
This has moved a lot of people.
So tell me about yourself.
I’m from Israel. It’s very diversified there. My mother is Lebanese, my father is Persian, hence the name Tabrizi. I was raised in Israel and educated in Europe. I came to the US about 28 years ago. This is my second restaurant under the same name and I love Baltimore. Baltimore is good to me and life is good.
And your food.
My background is from the Middle East. My mother is Lebanese and Lebanese women are known for good cuisine. I have hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, babaganoush on the menu. Typical Middle Eastern food. I also have spaghetti carbonara, seabass, salmon, lamb, watermelon and goat cheese salads. Mediterranean cuisine is so poplular now. It’s so simple. The key ingredients are fresh. The base is grains and vegetables. The tip of the pyramid is more proteins, meats, but because of the Mediterranean Sea, seafood is so abundant, so a lot of people use seafood for grilling. A lot of people raise their own cattle, usually lamb. That’s why it’s so popular in this part of the world. Beef is less popular and pork is almost non-existent. It’s just simple and fresh, all made from scratch and it’s very healthy.
Food has always been in my family. We all love food. Having a meal with your family is a big event in any Mediterranean country. It’s a gathering. The bread has to be delicious. It complements the food. Wine accompanies every meal. Well, except breakfast, of course.
Do you do the cooking?
I am also a chef. I do most of the cooking here with help in the kitchen. I put my finger print on everything that comes out of the kitchen. Most of the recipes are my mom’s. Certain dished I just never change or play with. Since I was educated in Europe, I also try to combine the European flair with the Middle Eastern cuisine and spices. Once you do that, you start creating different, new dishes. Our favorite here is the Chilean sea bass, served on harvest couscous with rosemary beurre blanc and asparagus. Every time I try to take it off the menu, people demand we put it back on, so now it’s our signature dish. Our brides especially love it.
I’ve been around food all my life. I tried twice to get out of the industry, but this is where I belong. This is where my passion is. I love touching food. I love being creative. I love to cook for people. I love to entertain at home. I feel in my world when I cook. It’s very important to do what you love. For me I feel like I’m on vacation here, especially being on the water.
Can you tell me about this area?
We are south of the harbor. 25 years ago this was all a shipyard. If you look a little further down, you will see the Baltimore Museum of Industry and some ship yards still there. Ships would come here for repairs. A smart developer had a great vision and he purchased the whole area here and now you see it’s such a popular neighborhood with million dollar condos and a Ritz Residence.
Out on the boats you can see a few “liveaboards.” These people live on their boats. It’s just a way of life in the summer. Many leave in the winter and go down to Florida and come back in March/April. It’s a way of life. Instead of paying taxes on your property on land, you can live on a boat.
So Homeless Restaurant Week starts next weekend. What do you think you might learn from this?
I have never had the chance to dine with a homeless person. You give them money or buy them food, but to sit with them, I think it’s going to be a really unique experience. I want them to feel what it’s like to have a champagne flute against their lips, clean and fresh. A cotton napkin and real silverware and china and a good meal in a restaurant. I think they will feel respected and loved and that is the goal.
Thank you so much, Michael. I was so touched by your story on Facebook and I was going to be in Baltimore and decided I had to come and meet you. I think it’s beautiful what you are doing. For it to catch on so quickly and to become so widely spread… Thank you. I think you have touched a lot of people.
I hope so. Hopefully this will go well and next year we will do something for the kids.
Homeless Restaurant Week was a huge success. Here are some photos from Michael’s Facebook page and some heartfelt Facebook posts that will remind you just how human we are after all.
Michael Tabrizi is the owner of Tabrizi’s in Baltimore and the man behind Homeless Restaurant Week and more. He is currently seeking volunteers for his next give back dinner, named the Wounded Warrior Project: Dinner for wounded veterans to take place at Tabrizi’s on #VeteransDay, Wednesday, November 11, 2015.
You can sign up for the Veteran’s dinner by clicking here.
You can visit his website here: http://www.tabrizis.com/
To see more photos from Homeless Restaurant Week 2015, please visit Tabrizi’s Facebook page.