NOURISHING THE NEEDY
New restaurants in Spain cater to those who can’t afford to eat out.
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.”