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The owners of a Texas restaurant weren’t going to let a power outage stop them from helping a community in crisis during a crippling winter storm this week.
More than 500 people came to Bella Italia Ristorante in Plano on Wednesday and were able to get their first hot meal in days after blackouts had left them stranded at home in frigid temperatures.
Owners Ari and Blinera Isufaj and five staff members were able to whip up hundreds of free meals of spaghetti and lasagna for anyone in need because their ovens and stoves use gas instead of electricity.
“I had multiple people sending photos from home saying it’s their first hot meal in three days,” Ari Isufaj told TODAY Food. “People were saying, ‘Thank you so much, that’s so thoughtful.’ It was just amazing. We just wanted to do something and give people some comfort food.”
Their kind gesture comes after millions of Texans lost power for days amid single-digit temperatures, with many people posting photos and videos on social media of bursting pipes, icy home interiors and furniture being burned for heat. The effects of the storm also led to grocery stores with bare shelves, damaged water systems and long takeout lines at the few restaurants that were open.
The Isufajs live only a half mile from their restaurant, and their home was without power as well. They were so cold on Tuesday morning they went to the restaurant at 6 a.m. and opened the pizza ovens just to warm up.
“I just thought, ‘We are having to come to our own restaurant just to warm up and cook, imagine what other people are going through,'” Ari Isufaj said. “That’s when the idea came about to just cook for people who are going through such a tough time.”
He estimated there were about 200 cars in their parking lot over the course of Wednesday when the restaurant served 508 free meals from 10:30 a.m. until about 3 p.m. A day earlier, they had delivered 80 meals to a warming center at nearby Sent Church.
“Ari, you are the best example I know of ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You and your staff are amazing. When it is safe to go out, I will be ordering your wonderful food,” one local woman commented on Facebook about the restaurant’s gesture.
“We are very fortunate to have you in Plano! Thanks for looking out for those in need!” another person wrote.
Ari Isufaj, 35, knows all about having to rely on the kindness of strangers. He is a war refugee from Kosovo who came to Texas with his uncle as a 14-year-old in 1999. Wednesday, the day the restaurant handed out the hundreds of meals, also happened to be Kosovo’s independence day.
“When I first came here, it wasn’t easy,” he said. “People I did not know, who I had never met, helped me buy a backpack and bought me clothes to play soccer, and I never forgot that.”
While he experienced wintry weather as a kid in Kosovo, he has never seen weather in his 20-plus years in Texas like the storm that has caused billions of dollars in damage.
“In Kosovo, we were prepared for this (type of weather) with generators and stuff like that, but this just really caught us off guard,” he said.
While the power was restored on Thursday, the restaurant is now facing a new challenge.
“There is now a food shortage,” Isufaj said. “It’s very difficult to get stuff because the delivery trucks aren’t running. Now that we’re back to normal, we just don’t have the supplies, so we have to go and get them ourselves.”
Their selfless gesture this week was also borne out of their gratitude for the customers who helped keep them afloat during the pandemic, which has shuttered more than 110,000 restaurants across the country.
Bella Italia Ristorante had barely been open for a year when the pandemic began.
“Everything my wife and I have mentally, emotionally, physically and financially is in this place,” Isufaj said. “When COVID hit I was like, ‘Damn, we lost everything.'”
However, an outpouring of support, from customers buying gift cards to making donations, has helped them through a difficult time.
“When I thought I lost my business, these amazing customers stepped up and helped me,” he said. “And when this (storm) happened, it was just the right thing to do. There are a lot of people that are struggling, so we just paid it forward.”