Alvin Drew Siekert of Pacific Grove works, with the help of dozens of volunteers, to provide a good meal. Specifically, a good meal every Sunday, to whoever needs to eat. Siekert and his team meet at Window on the Bay in Monterey, and supported by a white truck emblazoned with “Al & Friends,” a couple of tents, tables and a grill, they cook and distribute meals to at least 75 people.
A retired chef, Siekert started this community effort about a decade ago, cooking by himself and using his own car once a month. Over time support steadily grew, allowing Siekert to serve meals weekly. The weekly gesture turned into a nonprofit organization shortly after one meal distribution when police officers asked him to show a permit.
There is a sense of togetherness and dignity at Al & Friends gatherings. Volunteers come from across the community – different ages (as young as 14) and backgrounds are represented. Members include writers, environmentalists, healthcare professionals, retirees and veterans looking to give back. About 40 regularly help set up, cook and distribute Sunday breakfasts.
The menus vary, but can feature breakfast sandwiches, burritos, pancakes, veggies and more. Siekert regularly attends farmers markets, soliciting donations. “We cook from scratch. We don’t open cans. We make things happen,” he says.
Besides distributing food, Al & Friends also hands out blankets and warm clothes in winter.
Siekert has a relentlessly positive attitude. I’m the oldest [in the family] and still kicking,” he says, adding that he celebrated his birthday early. I kind of joke – not everyone gets a birthday every year. So I have mine early to make sure I get one.”
For the holiday, Al & Friends served a special Thanksgiving brunch with baked ham, potatoes and traditional fixings.
Weekly: Why do you think the organization has grown so much?
Siekert: People want to help, but you need to have a vehicle for them to help. I don’t mean the truck – I mean the entity of Al & Friends. The salad came from the community garden in Pacific Grove. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing and I had no idea so many people would care to be involved. When I knocked on my neighbors’ doors – 10 neighbors – maybe two fell off. Of the people who started helping me in the very beginning, most are there to help me today.
What do you like to cook for yourself?
I like pork chops. I like a nice salad – not that often – and I like potatoes and eggs. I’m pretty simple, you know? I’ve cooked in fancy places. I’ve cooked nine-course meals.
Why so simple when you’re a chef?
I’ve lived in cowboy country, you know what I mean? Cooked on tin cans in a desert. I made Navajo bread, putting flour on water.
I cook for hungry people. I don’t get complaints, but if you cook in fancy places – one time and an order came back because one of the cooks on the line had broken the poached egg. How are you going to eat it without breaking it? I don’t have that problem here.
What do you do the rest of the week?
I like fishing. I like camping. I lived in a teepee for two years in the mountains of Colorado. The bears would walk us away from our camp.
Do you have a New Year’s resolution?
I’ve got everything I need. I’m trying to get funding for another truck so I can do a mobile shower. I’m in some chat with the hospital, also with MST [Monterey Salinas Transit], because both donate vehicles on occasion. So we’re trying to do that, and it’ll happen. I don’t get anxious about it. I just let people know what is needed.
You mentioned you can be a barista, rodeo clown or emergency service technician – for free. What do those three things have in common, if anything?
It came to me as a little epiphany: every one of those jobs requires you to be here now. [People] want you to show up and do it. I’ll be effective with that. That’s what I like about this business [Al & Friends] being responsible, delegating authority. But you can never delegate responsibility, and [I am] responsible for feeding these people. It’s an honor.