NOUR­ISH­ING THE NEEDY

New restau­rants in Spain cater to those who can’t af­ford to eat out.

The Times-Tribune - - Obituaries / Nation - BY RAPHAEL MINDER

MADRID — Án­gel Castillo once worked as a restau­rant cook. But af­ter los­ing his job and strug­gling with al­co­holism, he has been sleep­ing on the streets for most of the past 16 years. It has been awhile since he has worked in a restau­rant, let alone eaten at one.

Yet there he was one re­cent evening, among the din­ers who crowded into a new restau­rant in Madrid. It was a sim­ple space, with red-tiled walls and pa­per nap­kins, but there were table­cloths, chan­de­liers and wa­ter glasses, and even some­one to serve you.

“It’s spe­cial to get your food in a restau­rant,” Mr. Castillo said, sat­is­fied.

The restau­rant is one of four named Robin Hood that opened in the past month in Spain to serve those who can­not af­ford to dine out.

Novel busi­ness model

The minichain’s novel busi­ness model is not to steal from the rich, but rather to use rev­enues made by serv­ing break­fast and lunch to pay­ing cus­tomers to cover the costs of pre­par­ing free evening din­ners for home­less peo­ple.

It is the brain­child of the Rev. Án­gel Gar­cía Ro­dríguez, 79, one part cler­gy­man, one part in­no­va­tor and non­profit en­tre­pre­neur, who has spent a life­time work­ing with the needy.

Un­con­ven­tional down to his at­tire, Fa­ther Án­gel, as he is univer­sally called, prefers a suit and loose tie to a col­lar, un­less he is say­ing Mass, and is just as likely to hand out his busi­ness card as com­mu­nion. “The priest habit is like my gala out­fit,” he said with a chuckle.

The Rev. Ro­dríguez has had long ex­pe­ri­ence find­ing new ways that some­times push the bound­aries of how to serve the poor.

He is pres­i­dent of Mes­sen­gers of Peace, a non­govern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion that em­ploys 3,900 peo­ple and 5,000 vol­un­teers. It runs homes for older peo­ple, or­phan­ages, cen­ters for drug ad­dicts and other so­cial ser­vices.

But what all of his projects have in com­mon is that they have helped sus­tain the most vul­ner­a­ble Spa­niards at a time of near­record un­em­ploy­ment and deep pub­lic spend­ing cuts amid the lin­ger­ing eco­nomic cri­sis. His or­ga­ni­za­tion also runs projects in about 50 de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

These days, it is his bud­ding string of Robin Hood restau­rants that an­i­mates the Rev. Ro­dríguez. On top of re­ceiv­ing ba­sic help, he ex­plained in an in­ter­view, poor peo­ple need to re­gain a sense of dig­nity and pur­pose that is hard to achieve when eat­ing in a soup kitchen.

“To get served by a waiter wear­ing a nice uni­form and to eat with proper cut­lery, rather than a plas­tic fork, is what gives you back some dig­nity,” he said.

Lur­ing celebrity chefs

The Rev. Ro­dríguez is pre­par­ing to ex­pand his model. He said he was in talks with a restau­rant owner to open a Robin Hood in Mi­ami, Florida, in Jan­uary. He is even hop­ing to lure celebrity chefs to vol­un­teer oc­ca­sion­ally to cook at his restau­rants.

His restau­rant idea is not the first time he has bro­ken new ground. Last year, the Rev. Ro­dríguez took over an aban­doned church, San An­tón, in Madrid and re­shaped it into some­thing akin to a com­mu­nity cen­ter.

Today, it wel­comes about 1,000 peo­ple a day. Most of them are des­ti­tute. Some even sleep there. The Rev. Ro­dríguez says it is the only church open 24 hours a day in the Western world.

On some evenings, the church shows soc­cer games on the tele­vi­sion screens that are nor­mally used to broad­cast Mass. Food is served in the back pews, while vis­i­tors can con­sult with med­i­cal vol­un­teers, get free ac­cess to Wi-Fi or just use the church’s re­strooms.

Of course, Mass is also said, ei­ther by the Rev. Ro­dríguez or an­other priest. Con­fes­sion can also be con­ducted via an iPad, for those too hard of hear­ing to catch the words of a whis­per­ing priest.

Al­fonso San­ta­maría, 43, serves as one of the Rev. Ro­dríguez’s altar boys. He said he spent most of his day in the church, but then trav­eled ev­ery night to sleep in one of the ter­mi­nals of Madrid’s air­port.

Mr. San­ta­maría has been home­less for more than a year, af­ter los­ing his job at a street stall selling chur­ros, a tra­di­tional Span­ish pas­try. He pre­vi­ously served in the Span­ish Le­gion in North­ern Africa and con­tin­ues to wear a jacket with its logo on the back.

Be­fore ac­cept­ing the Rev. Ro­dríguez’s of­fer to be­come one of his altar boys, Mr. San­ta­maría said, he had not stepped into a church for more than two decades.

“Fa­ther Án­gel changes peo­ple a lot, and he has kept me away from do­ing some bad things,” he said. “I feel we are now do­ing each other a fa­vor: He keeps me busy while I help with Mass.”

SAMUEL ARANDA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Food is served in the Robin Hood restau­rant in Madrid, Spain. Poor peo­ple are served by wait­ers, an ef­fort to help them re­gain a sense of dig­nity that is hard to achieve when eat­ing in a soup kitchen.

SAMUEL ARANDA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The Rev. An­gel Gar­cia Ro­driguez, cen­ter in suit, at San An­ton church in Madrid, Spain. Last year, he took over the aban­doned church and re­shaped it into some­thing akin to a com­mu­nity cen­ter.

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