The Nicest Place in Minnesota: Victoria’s Ristorante and Wine Bar in Rochester

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"No Child Hungry"

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Kids love pasta and Victoria’s had a lot of it to share at just the right time.

On March 17, Minnesota closed all restaurants to in-house dining, dealing the first of many blows to an industry that’s been hit hard in the COVID-19 crisis. But all Natalie Victoria could think of was the children. She’s the owner, along with her family, of Victoria’s Ristorante and Wine Bar in Rochester.

“Where are the kids going to eat? I thought,” she says, considering all the students who relied on meals at school to stay fed and healthy. She also thought she might have a solution: “We’re an Italian restaurant, and pasta is a kid food. We’ve got a ton of it.”

She posted an offer on Facebook, describing the events leading to lockdown as “surreal” and that she wanted Victoria’s to be “a helper”: “Any child who needs a meal can come to the restaurant. Marinara Sauce with Pasta. Meat Sauce with Pasta. Buttered Noodles. And FRESH BREAD!! No questions asked. No purchase necessary. Please see the front desk upon arrival.”

The first day, Victoria’s provided 80 meals. By the end of the first week that number was up to 125. Anyone who asked got a meal, including a single mother with twins, a grandmother raising her grandchildren, and a father who suffered a stroke and was unable to work, according to Elaine Pardi, who submitted this story to Reader’s Digest.

Victoria's staff in masksCourtesy Natalie Victoria
Staff members at Victoria’s, ready to work safely

Victoria’s is an institution downtown. Nestled in the shadow of the world-famous Mayo Clinic, it has served the healthcare workers there for 23 years. Since the start of the pandemic, the restaurant has given an estimated 1,000 meals to healthcare workers for free since the start of the pandemic, on top of all the meals to kids, which Victoria estimates to be around 3,000 at this point.

As word spread, donations started pouring in from neighboring business owners who wanted to pitch in: gallons of fresh milk from Shorewood Senior Living Center, boxes of doughnuts from Daube’s Bakery, gelato from Chocolaterie Stam. Pretty soon, the effort went regional, with Pohl Food Service in Minneapolis donating mozzarella cheese and pasta, and Wisconsin’s Eau Galle Cheese sharing 250 pounds of their award-winning Parmesan cheese. Then it went national, with Performance Foodservice and Sysco Foods donating over 100 cases of fresh fruit as well as milk, orange juice, mac and cheese, and more. Cash and checks rolled in too. Volunteers stepped up to help, and pretty soon Victoria had all the hands she needed to prepare and pass out the meals.

“We had so many food donations that we had to start delivering,” Victoria explains.

Victoria’s purchasing agent Barbara Schuh brought food to a single dad with two teens who lost his wife years ago and had a stroke of his own that prevented him from driving. She also delivered to a family whose mother was a nurse and didn’t have time to cook because of extra hours preparing to fight COVID-19.

“You can be the giver, but until you’re doing the actual giving [in person], that’s when you see it,” says Victoria. “Then it wears heavily on you for hours and days after. There was an underbelly of need in our community that we didn’t know about until now.”

“Amazing what can be done when a community pulls together,” says Pardi.

victoria's bags in the back of an suvCourtesy Natalie Victoria
Victoria’s Ristorante and Wine Bar had no idea the how far their kindness would go when they first began offering free meals for kids.

The Nomination

On March 17th, 2020, the state of Minnesota issued a response to COVID-19, closing all in-dining at bars and restaurants as a step to flatten the curve. For over 25 years, Victoria’s Restaurant and Wine Bar has been serving the community and visitors of Rochester, MN. Natalie Victoria, Co-Owner, is known as a giving person to her community and was determined to create a purpose to keep her team’s spirit alive. On March 17th, as their doors closed to dining inside the restaurant, they kept open their kitchens to provide free meals to the youth of their community. Natalie understood the impact of COVID-19 and how many would be struggling to put food on their tables. As Natalie and her team lead the mission and inspired the community along the way, Victoria’s became a Hero to many during COVID-19 On the first day, 80 free meals were provided. Meals were provided to everyone, a single young mother with four-year-old twins, as well as a loving grandmother who now takes care of her three beautiful grandchildren. The team also met with a father who suffered a stroke and could not provide for his family at this time as he was recovering himself. The list continued to grow. By the weekend, they had feed an additional 125 kids with more inquires coming in and word started to spread throughout the community. Their hearts continued to be inspired, one night, as the restaurant started to close up a gentleman came in for two kids’ meals, he wanted his kids to sleep with a full belly. Victoria’s slept with a full heart. As the days went by, they continued to get referrals from teachers and others about children that needed a meal. Money started to pour in from donations in the community. People stepped up to volunteer to help deliver the meals throughout the city and beyond. It wasn’t long before the community business started to step up to support the mission that Victoria’s had started. Shorewood Senior Living Center dropped of gallons of fresh milk to give out. Victoria’s felt pretty special that area businesses are leaving their donated goods in their hands, and trusting them to get the donations to where they are needed most. The local Daube’s Bakery dropped off boxes upon boxes of donuts to add a sweet treat. Sysco Foods donated over 100 cases containing fresh fruit such as raspberries, fresh blueberries, melons, apples, and oranges, as well as milk, orange juice, mac and cheese and much more Another local business, Chocolaterie Stam, donated lots of gelato. Then donations started to come in from other areas in the Midwest, including Pohl Food Service in Minneapolis, a small Italian supplier who graciously donated mozzarella cheese and pasta. Eau Galle Cheese, a company based in Wisconsin, donated 250lbs of their award-winning Parmesan cheese and Performance Foodservice also donated cases of fresh produce. One volunteer talked about the people she had delivered food to and the stories she had heard. Such stories include a family of 8 living in a two-bedroom apartment. Seven are sick and recovering from the flu (Not COVID-19) – Only one is working and one is in nursing school. Another family with four kids, who they just moved here from Detroit. At the next stop was a single mom of three, all her kids are sick and she struggles with a mental illness. The volunteer said, “She was grinning from ear to ear when I dropped it off.” When asked how many Natalie Victoria had fed since starting, she stated. “It is hard to say how many, we tried to keep track of the first week, but it got away from us. I asked our staff, they thought close to 3000, truth be told, this has absolutely given us a sense of purpose. We have had many many requests from local teachers, etc. wanting to help deliver. Amazing what can be done when a community pulls together.”

The Slogan MN Nice is frequently heard when describing the people that create our state. Rochester MN embraces that as we are a friendly community with many positives as far as work, recreation and a very livable city. As for kindness with our numbers of nonprofit per capita, generous, and considerate is part of our community backbone.

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