Like thousands of places of worship, St. David’s Episcopal Church closed its doors in March, and its staff, including chef Ray Trono, wasn’t sure when it would reopen.
For 20 years, Trono has overseen Cafe Divine, a restaurant inside the church’s fellowship hall that draws parishioners, office workers and people who live in the area.
Trono, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, spent 10 years at the Headliners Club before taking over the culinary job at the church and opening a weekly community cafe.
As word spread about Cafe Divine’s affordable, chef-quality food, those lunch crowds grew. Volunteers kept the cafe’s costs down and allowed Trono and his small paid staff to work with young adults in the Austin school district’s Go Project, a transition program for students with disabilities who are 18 to 22 years old.
Trono says that when the coronavirus pandemic hit Austin, he worried about those students who had become such an integral part of the cafe. He also worried about the patrons, many of whom he knew by their first names.
St. David’s, which was founded in 1848 and is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in the country, has always been a neighbor-oriented church. As more Austinites call downtown home, church leaders have tried to create a space that draws customers who might otherwise eat at a traditional restaurant.
"We have this relationship with our customers," Trono says. "It’s a community. It’s a fellowship. That’s one of the hardest things about not being able to do food in the building. We don’t get to have those conversations with people."
When St. David’s closed in March, Trono immediately started thinking about how they could continue operating the cafe while complying with state and church orders.
"Our last meal was March 12, and I started reading into the situation," he says. "I knew it was going to be bad ... but the idea of curbside started to percolate."
He and his team began developing menus that would be suitable for to-go orders and started to look for compostable or recyclable packaging that they could buy while still keeping costs down. He also had to build a safety plan for reentry to the building that required the bishop’s approval.
It took several months to get clearance from the head of the diocese and to set up a website that could take orders online, but on July Fourth weekend, Cafe Divine officially reopened with a new business model.
Diners place orders between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner items that are available for pickup at 301 E. Eighth St. between 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Trono leads a cooking team that is small enough to maintain social distancing in the kitchen, with two staffers bringing food to customers’ cars. They haven’t been able to welcome volunteers or Go Project students back into the operation, but Trono is looking at more ways to bring Cafe Divine to the community.
He’s introduced ready-to-bake cookie dough on the online menu and is selling some grocery staples, such as bread, butter and coffee.
Many of the menu items, including lasagna, chicken tetrazzini, brisket, salmon with basil pesto and Trono’s famed Cajun meatloaf, are meant to feed a family or leave enough for leftovers. Customers can also buy lighter fare, such as sandwiches, stuffed portobello mushrooms, rice pilaf, salads and sides, like green beans with lemon pimiento butter.
The whole chicken and pork loin require ordering 48 hours ahead of time, but all of the other menu items are available for same-day pickup. (You can find the menu and order via stdave.org/curbside.)
Proceeds from the food pay for the operating costs and salaries of the employees, and tips are donated to the Central Texas Food Bank. On opening weekend, those tips totaled $850, Trono says, all of which went to the food bank.
"We are trying to find the balance between quick meals and big dinners," he says. "We want to be good stewards of the food and be flexible and adjust as needed."
After four months of uncertainty, Trono has reached the point of being excited about the changes ahead. He’s missing the face-to-face connection with customers he now calls friends, but he’s also starting to think about how Cafe Divine can continue to expand to serve more people.
Before he started at St. David’s, Trono used to sell bottled salsas at the Burnet Road farmers market, so he’s already looking into bottling Cafe Divine’s salad dressings to sell in local grocery stores. The cookie dough sales have been encouraging.
"If I can’t provide fellowship in the dining hall, what can I do?" he says. "How are we going to make ourselves relevant?"
St. David’s has been a professional and spiritual home for Trono for two decades now, and he’s not planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
"For being a culinarian who didn’t want to be in the rat race and who wanted to raise a family, it’s been incredible to have a place that appreciates you and that wants you to be able to take care of you," he says.