Every time he saw folks drop off day-old bread, cold coffee, and dry donuts on behalf of the hungry, Al Siekert recognized the heart in their intentions. He also understood that these offerings were not going to nourish those in need. He decided he and his community could do better.
So, he knocked on doors, gathered goodwill and donations, and set about making something as sacred as a fresh, warm Sunday breakfast. On that first Sunday, 15 people showed up and ate their fill. After receiving gratitude and inquiries about if and when he’d be back, Siekert’s plan to return to Del Monte Beach with breakfast once a month shifted to every Sunday, rain or shine.
After all, people get hungry no matter what the weather’s doing.
“I made a promise to keep bringing breakfast for a year,” Siekert said, “without missing a Sunday. I was 15 months into it before I noticed my year was up. That’s when I realized I had no reason to stop and every reason to continue. What began with 15 guests has grown to more than 100.”
And thus, “Al & Friends Sunday Breakfast” was born about 10 years ago.
Every time Herald Heroes nominator Justin Noren ran into Siekert at a local farmers market, handing out food, sharing pictures of his Sunday breakfast, and telling stories, Noren received an invitation to come on out, “any Sunday” for breakfast. One Sunday, he did. Noren since has been volunteering at the breakfast for seven years.
“Part of the draw,” said Noren, “was that my father passed away about the same time I met Al, who has the same kind of all-inclusive, loving personality as my dad. My father was a philosophy professor, who had a way of breaking down barriers and getting people to communicate, just like Al does. Everyone walks away with a full stomach and a spring in our step, with some nugget of knowledge to ponder.”
A catalyst for community contribution
Siekert is a pied piper of sorts, gathering community support, he says, because they discover how good it feels to give.
“Nationally known pianist Richard Carr makes sourdough bread for me every Sunday. It’s beautiful bread,” Siekert said. “And Hillary Bennett makes a homemade batch of lentil soup every weekend and lovingly places it in to-go coffee cups with lids, so it stays warm. Heidi Feldman, part of the Pacific Grove Community Garden, which has dedicated several plots to ‘Al & Friends,’ brings out a beautiful salad with organic greens and edible flowers. And there are others.”
When Siekert, who had been renting a kitchen from 10 p.m. until 7 a.m. in which to make his weekly community breakfast, learned the place was being sold, he received a message from KSBW news anchor Dan Green, inviting Siekert to call him if he ran into a bind.
“I called Dan,” said Siekert, “and the next day, he had a news crew at my house to run a story, ‘Al Needs a Kitchen.’ The city of Pacific Grove called me and said, ‘Al, this City believes what you do is important to our community, and we want to help.’ Remembering those words darned near tears me up, still. They gave me Chautauqua Hall to cook in, and I’ve been there five years. This community is incredible. It looks after its own.”
Siekert, when not cooking his way through the night or serving food on Sundays, stands outside Grove Market on Saturdays, seeking donations toward his weekly $700 costs.
“The money always comes,” he said. “I’ve never had to cut my meal offering in half. Everyone gets fed. There are a lot of heroes in this community. When we get a good idea about how to take care of people, we never have to do it alone.”
The other night, Siekert was making a fresh salmon pasta, using salmon trimmings donated by La Mia Cucina restaurant in Pacific Grove. He was making his cream sauce, working in the onions and garlic and butter and cream, when he realized he wouldn’t have enough. So, he improvised by stirring in fresh gravy, which actually elevated the taste.
“People really need good nutrition,” he said, “but they also need something special. Every week I endeavor to create a ‘Pow’ reaction. I don’t want this to ever be a pedestrian meal. I never cook from a can; I make it all from scratch. My focus is on making good food for good people.”
Peninsula resident Nancy Goldrain nominated Siekert because this man, of modest means, she said, makes the most of what he has and inspires the community to contribute, to serve a hot meal to the city’s most vulnerable and, for one hour, put their cares aside and break bread together.
Clare Lindberg nominated Siekert after enjoying regular “stop-and-chat” visits outside Grove Market and recognizing the sense of normalcy and inclusion he provides to the housed and unhoused over a healthy, delicious meal.
“People often ask me why I do this,” Siekert said. “When I asked my neighbor, a retired fire captain who has been mowing a grassy area across the street from his house for a decade, why he does it, he said, ‘I’m just doing penance.’ I tell people I’m feeding my community because of my overextended, misspent youth. Actually, it’s because it’s so enjoyable. I go out at night sometimes and pass out food, and people greet me by name.”
Siekert, who recently turned 80, intends to continue making breakfast for his community for as long as possible. Yet his mission to provide high-quality foods, thoughtfully prepared, and served with dignity, said Justin Noren, will continue in perpetuity because of the strength and dedication he has instilled in his volunteers.
“A man once told me, ‘For two years, my daughter and I were living in a van, and you took care of us every weekend.’ He showed me his shoes and said, ‘You bought them for me. I just want to thank you for doing that.’ I’ve been on both sides of the stick,” Siekert said. “It’s those kinds of stories that get to me. But I’m just the catalyst. People already had this in their hearts.”
To learn more about Al & Friends, volunteer, or make a donation to this nonprofit organization, visit alandfriends.org