PAYING IT FORWARD

Sawmill Saloon & Restaurant owner Alissa Horan grabs a tray of meals from the back of her truck to bring into the Parkview Learning Center in Virginia on Tuesday. The Sawmill and several local businesses have teamed up to provide free lunches to area teachers, medical workers, firefighters and law enforcement officers.

MOUNTAIN IRON — The barbecue prime rib melts delivered at no cost to the Virginia Fire Department on Tuesday provided a much-appreciated “boost” to the crew.

Not only were the hot and “delicious” sandwiches a boost of energy, but also a boost to morale, said Chief Allen Lewis.

The Sawmill Saloon & Restaurant has been one of the department’s “top advocates” during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

The fire and ambulance crew has been the recipient of the Mountain Iron establishment’s “Donation Tuesday” meals many times during the past couple months.

“A lot of people are suffering” economically due to the health crisis, Lewis said. Businesses are shut down or at reduced capacity. Yet, “they are choosing to give away food and help others out in the community,” he said of the Sawmill. “That means a lot to us.”

The Sawmill began donating meals as a way to “pay it forward” for those supporting the business via curbside takeout orders, said Alissa Horan.

She and husband Patrick Horan, owners of the Sawmill, had been preparing for a big St. Patrick’s Day celebration when Minnesota Gov. Tim Waltz announced that dine-in restaurants and bars would be temporarily shut down starting at 5 p.m. March 17 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We decided to get the food together and go out and donate it,” Horan said by phone of the extra meals that remained.

The following week, Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia chose the Sawmill as its “restaurant of the day” to support. Numerous takeout orders were placed that day.

“We were so grateful and humbled with the response from our community,” Horan wrote on the Sawmill’s Facebook page March 25. “In response, we tried to pay it forward yesterday by donating and delivering as many meals as we could to those in need who live in our community.

“In the grand scheme, a small contribution. However, we would like to challenge everyone to help one another and do what they can to help their fellow neighbor/community member in need.”

From there, the effort grew.

In addition to community members in need, front line workers and essential employees were among those included in the Sawmill’s meal donations.

Businesses, organizations and individuals learned what the Sawmill was doing and “reciprocated by donating back so we could keep this rolling,” Horan said.

American Bank of the North was one of them. The bank’s community impact team “saw it as the perfect opportunity to help a small local business — and to help people out in the communities,” said Marci Knight, chief marketing officer. “Small businesses have always been there for us. Now was the time to repay the kindness.”

Staff at the Mountain Iron-Buhl school, including office and food service employees, custodians and paraprofessionals, were among those who received meals from the bank’s contribution to the Sawmill.

“It was really nice of them to support the school employees who are working hard to make sure students are getting their homework and getting fed and cleaning for when the students come back,” said Anni Grahek, MI-B student/personnel coordinator.

“They wanted nothing in return. They really wanted to recognize people who are going to work every day and supporting the community,” she added.

Other recipients of the Sawmill’s Donation Tuesday meals include employees of the Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert police departments; Virginia public schools; the cities of Mountain Iron, Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert; the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office; the Virginia Post Office; the Northland Animal Hospital in Virginia; and the Essentia Health-Virginia emergency room.

Each week meals are provided to workers at the COVID-19 testing tent in Virginia, Horan said.

And the Sawmill is continuing to give meals to residents in need — all while operating on a “skeleton crew.”

The business was forced to lay off 90% of its staff, Horan said.

She and Patrick have been helping to prepare and deliver the meals. And it’s all worth it “to see a smile on someone’s face.”

Horan said the business is trying to offer “feel-good meals” that people can “eat on the fly” and that travel well “in their own individual box,” which is sealed with a tamper-proof sticker.

Meals such as in-house smoked hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, fish tacos and Reuben stackers.

On Tuesday, May 5, Cinco de Mayo, the restaurant prepared a lunch of beef tacos and Spanish rice accompanied by tortilla chips and salsa.

Many private individuals, including several of her husband’s friends, have donated to the effort, Horan said, adding that she’s thankful to all the groups and businesses that have also stepped up, including the Iron Range Walk to Remember and Erik Peterson-Country Financial.

Dano Zebro, chairwoman of the Iron Range Walk to Remember, a nonprofit in Virginia that works to decrease suicides through awareness and resources, said she approached the board, which immediately agreed to contribute $1,000 to the Sawmill’s meal donations.

“The Sawmill has always supported us. It’s nice to give back to those who help you out,” Zebro said. “I’m lucky I can work from home,” unlike essential workers who don’t have that choice, she said, adding, “a huge ‘thank you’ to Alissa and Pat and the whole staff for pulling the community together. It’s amazing to see. We need to support each other, not tear each other down.”

Peterson, representative with Country Financial in Virginia, said the Illinois-based insurance company increased its investment in its Operation Helping Heroes program in response to COVID-19, and he chose the Sawmill’s Donation Tuesday to be a recipient of the funding, which supports first responders, medical workers and military members in the communities Country Financial serves.

“They pay half,” he said of the company, “and I pay half.”

Peterson said he saw what the Sawmill was doing to help front line workers and wanted to assist with the effort.

On April 1, Horan wrote on Facebook: “Happy and proud to have the ability to help those in need — 50 meals donated yesterday.” Horan also extended gratitude to those purchasing food to go and patronizing the Sawmill’s liquor store.

“Thank you to those that have donated and allowed #donationtuesdays to continue within the community,” Horan wrote on previous post.

“We, as a business, are definitely suffering, as we are sure others are also. The fallout from this crisis could be devastating. Like many others within the restaurant/hospitality industry, and many other industries, each day is a complete unknown ….

“That said, we are all impacted, the future is uncertain, but if we come together as a community, we know we can come out of this on the other side.”

The Sawmill is currently open form 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for pickup and curbside delivery. “We are still offering weekly specials,” along with family-style meals go, which “have gone over really well,” Horan said.

The restaurant will introduce new menu items next week and expand the family meals from four to six options, she said.

“We are looking forward to the day we can go back to business as usual,” Horan added. “In the meantime, we are getting ready for limited operation. We have done the research and we have the proper PPE (personal protective equipment)” to keep employees and patrons safe.

Chief Lewis said the fire and ambulance crew “can’t wait to support (the Sawmill) with dine-in” when it’s available again.

“Everyone, hang in there,” he said, encouraging the community to continue with acts of kindness. “It is noticed and appreciated. … This will pass, hopefully sooner than later. Be positive. And we are here if you need us.”

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