You’ve got a guy who coordinates a small, volunteer program feeding homebound neighbors from a tiny church kitchen in Armory Park. Now he’s starting a full-service catering business that he’s confident will quickly grow into a full-time, volunteer-fueled enterprise generating enough profit to not only support the meal program, but also allow it to expand.
Sounds delusional, right?
It would be, if the individual in question weren’t Jefferson Bailey, Deacon of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Armory Park, who will no doubt run the new business, St. Andrew’s Catering, with his left hand. And without breaking a sweat.
In the immaculate kitchen of St. Andrew’s, the photo of Chef Janos Wilder whipping up a big salad in that same space is the first clue to Bailey’s confidence in his group’s new venture, while the aromas drifting around make their own argument. With minimal direction, three chatty, cheerful volunteers—Anne, Marianne, and Becca, the regular midweek crew—are briskly transforming cases of donated vegetables into sides for nourishing, beautifully packaged meals.
“Just wash up that spinach and sauté it with a little olive oil and some garlic,” was all Bailey had said. Twenty minutes later, it smells fantastic.
Before starting Neighbors Feeding Neighbors in 2007, Bailey coordinated a similar program for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, or SAAF, for nearly 10 years. But for those of us who’ve been around Tucson awhile, his critical local cred is that he was one of the B’s behind the late, beloved Bowen & Bailey Café (known to most of its fans as the B&B Café), which he founded in the Hotel Congress with a friend and business partner, Anne Bowen, in 1986. Soon after Richard and Shana Oseran bought and renovated the hotel, the B&B opened, becoming one of the first places to make downtown a destination for food and drink.
“We were in a tiny space off the lobby,” Bailey says. “We had no stove—just two convection ovens and two stockpots. The espresso machine we installed was the second one in Tucson. Imagine that.”
In 1990 the B&B moved into the space on Sixth Avenue currently occupied by DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails, where, in addition to offering upscale, à la carte counter service, Bailey and Bowen ran the first modern farmers’ market in town, the Tucson Public Market. (The market was an attempt to address a perpetual downtown issue—where to buy groceries.) Eventually, Bailey bought out Bowen and moved the B&B into its final home, the Temple of Music and Art, where, in the café’s last incarnation, he presented unforgettable smorgasbord-style themed menus that reflected each evening’s production. That ended in 1997 when treatment for hepatitis C knocked him flat for eight months.
But these are just the local chapters of Bailey’s backstory. Before moving here, Bailey spent years managing the largest club in New York City—The Red Parrot, a giant disco that seated 2,000.
And before that he ran an exclusive, before-its-time nouvelle cuisine restaurant outside the spa town of Saratoga Springs, New York. He’d studied theater and dance and worked for the New York City Ballet, but segued into the restaurant business when his friend Earle Sieveling, a retired New York City Ballet dancer, became a chef. Bailey owned a picturesque bungalow 17 miles from Saratoga Springs where they created The Dacha, a sophisticated but casual country restaurant designed to appeal to city people who migrated upstate for the summer season. (The NYC Ballet’s summer home is in Saratoga Springs.)
“We were only open June through August. We fed Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Lincoln Kirstein, Peter Martins—that was the world we came from and they were our friends,” says Bailey. “But it quickly spilled over from the dance crowd into the horse-owners—Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and that whole scene.”
Guests entered through the kitchen garden, which supplied produce and inspiration for each day’s menu. Dinner was five courses, by reservation only. Food & Wine featured an opulent spread on the restaurant in 1981. So, how, exactly, did its owner wind up in a church kitchen in Armory Park?
“Well first, of all, I’m very attached to this place,” says Bailey.
The quiet old neighborhood south of downtown spoke to him and to his longtime partner, Richard Steen, when they first visited Tucson in 1986. (Steen, who retired from teaching at Holladay Intermediate Magnet School last year, is now the meal program’s primary deliveryman. “He never sets foot in church but does more ministering to people than I ever will,” says Bailey.)
“We just came out to see my folks and soak up a little sun. That was the plan. But we realized that we were ready to get out of New York. During that visit, we bought the little yellow house we [still] live in, the day we first laid eyes on it.
“Every Friday evening we sit out on the front porch and drink cocktails and chat with whoever strolls by. We call them our Front Porch Fridays,” says Bailey. “So there’s loving the place and the people. Then in 1997 I got the hep C diagnosis. I never felt sick from the infection for a minute, but the treatment made me feel as if I were dying. For months. As it turned out, I was one of the lucky ones—I came out of it completely cured. But I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t I die?’ ”
He spent two weeks at the monastery at St. David, which is where he says he met his spiritual mentor. “I had a revelation: I needed to serve. It wasn’t hard to figure out how. I’m a good cook and I love to feed people. And people need to be fed.”
Bailey undertook the four-year process of self-examination and study required for ordination as deacon in the Episcopal Church. “The main duty of a deacon is to minister to those in need—the hungry, the sick, the poor, and friendless. The job, basically, is to take care of people. Anne Bowen had been running Food for Life”—the SAAF’s meals program for people with AIDS—“and so getting involved in that was an obvious move,” he says.
“Over time it naturally developed. ‘Wait, one of our volunteers is sick—shouldn’t we feed our volunteers, too? Shouldn’t we feed people in the neighborhood who aren’t sick but who are frail and can’t cook a nice meal for themselves?’ The mission kept growing and Neighbors Feeding Neighbors is what came of it.”
Using monetary contributions in addition to in-kind donations from individual gardeners and local businesses—including The Food Conspiracy Co-op and Small Planet Bakery—the program’s disciplined volunteers prepare and deliver homemade meals to more than 15 clients each week. (The number of meals per client varies according to the circumstances of each; dietary needs and preferences are also accommodated.) Meals are packed in a cooler and delivered within a half-hour of leaving the St. Andrew’s freezer. They can be reheated in the compostable containers in which they’re packaged.
“We’d love to deliver meals still warm. But in this climate, that’s not happening,” Bailey explains. His years of providing meals to AIDS patients with compromised immune systems have made him “an absolute fanatic” about food safety.
Interestingly, a major challenge for the program has been identifying people who need the service. “We find that many people would literally rather starve than ask for help, so we ask others in the community to help us find our neighbors who need assistance,” says Bailey. “The Armory Park Neighborhood Association has been a great partner in this. Sometimes it’s not even about money. A few of our recipients pay for their meals—they have adequate incomes but aren’t able to shop and cook.”
The program is poised to expand as it develops its outreach and forms new partnerships. The purpose of the nascent catering service, St. Andrew’s Catering, is to fund that expansion. With a graceful, airy room that seats 60, a pretty garden patio, and a location within a few blocks of downtown, St. Andrew’s—located at 16th Street and Fifth Avenue—is an appealing venue.
“We can do anything, from a locally sourced, organic, multicourse dinner to simply furnishing a pleasant space for an offsite meeting,” Bailey says. “And why wouldn’t you want your dollars to go to helping feed your community?”
Among Bailey’s thoughts for the catering menu is the B&B’s most fondly remembered dish, Chicken Tarragon with Wild Rice and Deviled Eggs. “People still ask me about it,” he says. With the ink barely dry on the flyers for the catering service, inquiries are already coming in.
Watching the burgeoning local restaurant scene, Bailey has come up with another, edgier idea for raising funds.
“I was talking to [Hotel Congress owner] Richard Oseran the other day and he said, ‘Can you believe there are now 63 restaurants within a mile of where we’re standing?’ And I said, ‘And maybe in a few years 30 of them will be good.’”
To help them get there, he’s thinking about establishing a restaurant consulting service to be called, tentatively, First Impressions.
“I walk into your coffee shop or café or restaurant for a fee and tell you what you’re doing right—and what you must improve if you hope to make it: ‘Here are a few little things you might want to attend to.’”
Bailey elaborates: “The person making juices in full view of your patrons has her hair hanging loose and is wiping her nose on her hand. The guy running the front of the house is a jerk. You’re keeping people standing with empty tables in view when you could be serving them cocktails, making them happy, and making money. Your staff is obviously miserable and enjoys saying ‘no’ to your guests.
“These things will kill you, no matter how beautiful your food is. I’ve been around long enough to see what’s wrong in two minutes, and how to fix it.”
You know it’s true. They should listen to the Deacon. ✜
Neighbors Feeding Neighbors and St. Andrew’s Catering.
545 S. Fifth Avenue. To donate to Neighbors Feeding Neighbors or inquire about St. Andrew’s Catering, contact Jefferson Bailey at email@example.com or 520.622.8318.
Renée Downing has been eating and writing in Tucson for nearly 40 years.