For just over three years, local entrepreneur Emily Christine has been serving traditional Italian food to Athens and the surrounding area through her restaurant, Tavolino. Located on the west side of Athens, 9 N. Shafer St., Tavolino has always prioritized helping the people of Athens, be it through soup programs or free lunches.
Athens County local Kathy Bick, who first visited Tavolino back in 2019 for its 2nd Annual Community Thanksgiving Meal, describes the restaurant as a small community restaurant serving five-star Italian food that is seasoned with both love and a warm personal feel. Bick makes a point to visit Tavolino weekly at minimum in order to support Christine’s business and take part in her altruistic programs.
“Events such as these inevitably nourish all in the community,” Bick said in an email. “Simply said, I look forward to Tuesdays. I enjoy being surprised by what soup it might be that day, or if she has decided to provide a salad during the summer’s hottest weeks.”
Christine’s selflessness can be traced back to her #SoupOnHold program, which has provided free soup to the community ever since Tavolino initially opened in 2017. Those who feel like giving are able to purchase bowls of soup, pre-paying for people who really need it. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Christine made it easy to pre-pay for others’ meals by offering to just add the price of single soups onto the bills of those dining in.
“They can just tack it onto their bill or whatever, and they can write a nice little note and stick it on the board,” Christine said, explaining the simple process of purchasing soups for others. “We have (the board) right at the front where people can just (take some soup) if you forgot your wallet, need some lunch … Whatever, just come up; grab it.”
But what stands out most about Christine to customers isn’t just her willingness to give, but her willingness to share. As the coronavirus has spread across the globe and countries have shut down and gone into quarantine, her focus has broadened. Christine recognized higher unemployment rates meant more people were in need, and she decided she needed to come up with a program that wasn’t just targeted at the underprivileged.
“It was just really horrendous,” Christine said, talking about the unemployment rates in Athens as the pandemic hit. “I mean, this area is already super poor to begin with, and I was just trying to think of what I could do, something to help. People get anxious about using the free soup sometimes and I just wanted something for everyone.”
Christine’s Tuesday lunch program was born. For the past couple of months, Christine has been providing free meals to anyone who wants them every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. She sees it more as a “community thing” than a “free meal kind of thing” because her goal is to feed the people of Athens and make their days easier. Christine has provided up to 164 meals in one Tuesday.
“I want everybody to come, not just if you need a free lunch,” Christine said. “It’s nice to get things for free, you know, for everybody … I’ve thought about it, and I definitely committed to the end of September, but then I thought about it more, and a few weeks ago, I just decided that there is no point at which I’m going to feel OK with saying, ‘OK, we don’t need this anymore’ because, realistically, we needed it before the pandemic. This area needs more food availability and security for everybody.”
Most of the ingredients purchased for the lunches had been paid for right out of Christine’s pocket until she started getting donations. These donations, which range from just a few dollars to the $1,000 donation the Athens Catholic Community Food Pantry provided, are now another strong factor that keeps Christine afloat. Now, because the community has shown its support and put even more into her restaurant, the lunch program seems to have no end in sight.
Raymond Robinson, a retired Bassett House substance counselor, had never visited Tavolino until the coronavirus hit, and he caught word about the lunch programs. He was impressed with the invitation, which he described as “no muss, no fuss, no questions about income, just a simple ‘Y’all come.’’’ Robinson has been visiting Tuesdays ever since in order to pick up Christine’s homemade lunches.
“It is like Cheers: ‘Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always so glad you came,” Robinson recited the lyrics in an email. “That’s how it is. Emily knows me by name, as well as other customers. I know them, they know me and it honestly feels like old time America. Neighborly, friendly. No matter race, creed or sexual orientation, you are just people and you are welcome.”
Clarification appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Bick as an Athens local rather than an Athens County local. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.