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Sunny Gerhart is Raleigh’s holiday superhero
This time last year, we were gearing up for another season of giving thanks, only Raleigh was wide open for business. We went about our normal lives, perusing downtown shops, popping in for bites and sips at our favorite bars and restaurants—St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar included. Downtown is still somewhat quiet but St. Roch has kept its doors open seven days a week while chef and owner Sunny Gerhart, as composed as one can be during a pandemic, navigates an ever-changing world.
As we enter November, the word grace enters my mind, specifically when I think about St. Roch (and the industry as a whole). “This time hasn’t been easy for anyone and everyone is just trying to do the best they can,” Gerhart says. Stepping into the restaurant feels like a time warp back to a reality I’m always down to be privy to: a place where you can devour local oysters, gator bolognese, chili crab claws and smoked pimento cheese oysters; a place where you can enjoy a small but mighty wine list, and a place with killer ambiance and the best playlist I’ve heard in a restaurant to date.
At the pandemic’s outset, Gerhart stood solo in the dining room, trying to sustain his business with takeout food and providing countless meals to the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, a nonprofit that fights hunger within the community for families in need. Slinging po’ boys and rice and beans, skateboarding around stacks of to-go containers piled high on tables, Gerhart tried not to go stir crazy.
“I’m grateful we’ve been able to feed people who need it, and employ more people who are out of work,” he says. “This is what hospitality is all about, and we all need it now more than ever—our guests, who we’re trying to reach in whatever way works for them, whether its dining in or picking up. But hospitality goes beyond that and includes the team we work with, our friends in the industry and people we don’t know but who are part of our neighborhood and Raleigh.”
Fast forward to fall and Gerhart is still plugging away. It’s refreshing to see the dining room all bright and shiny, with a chalkboard menu filled with current offerings versus an old, worn paper menu, reminiscent of a pre-pandemic life. Currently, Gerhart provides an average of 500 meals each week to the Food Shuttle and has contributed more than 50,000 meals since April. These include hearty, ready-to-heat meals that feed families of four to six people. Think of a tin container, packed to the brim with rice, poached chicken thighs, vegetables, sauce and peppers, plus tortillas, prepared by a professional chef—a sure hit with families.
“I switch up offerings every few weeks,” says Gerhart, noting the challenges inherent to executing a cost effective meal well. “It’s nice to have a little variety. I try to make the meals something I’d eat myself.”
Despite the challenges, Gerhart says he believes that just because people can’t afford food doesn’t mean they should eat poorly. “To me, it’s just like putting a dish on the menu [at St. Roch],” he says. “I go back and adjust the meals just as I would in the restaurant and slowly perfect them.”
St. Roch opens at 4 p.m. for dinner, and Gerhart utilizes the daytime in the restaurant to cook meals for the food shuttle, then packs them up in banker boxes for seamless delivery. His calm demeanor puts him at superhero status in my book; under pressure, he still manages to crush it, one day at a time.
This year, the holidays feel eerie and unpredictable but Gerhart doesn’t plan to slow down. For the holidays, Gerhart will launch St. Roch Pantry, a line of specialty items available to home cooks to kick off the entertaining season.
“We love that people are cooking at home more, and maybe aren’t ready to dine out, so we wanted to make all of [our] specialty foods accessible to home cooks,” Gerhart says. “It’s pretty special to us to think of being part of their table at home — not just with food they’ve ordered for take out, but at the stove when they’re cooking for family and friends.”
The pantry line will include New Orleans-inspired items, including andouille and boudin sausages, chicken gumbo, smoked pimento cheese, fried saltines, charred cabbage chow chow, bread and butter pickles, pickled jalapeños and banana peppers. Ready-to-roast oysters with all the fixin’s, fresh oyster kits and the chef’s much-hyped gator bolognese will be available, too, plus cocktail kits to-go featuring fan favorites like the Bobby Boucher, crafted with house made “Trinity” syrup, to warm up the holidays.
Pre-order St. Roch Pantry items online at: strochraleigh.com during November and December.
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