RIVERVIEW — Caterer Herminio Ithier took a hit when private events dried up with the spread of the coronavirus.
But Ithier isn’t sitting around waiting for a return to normal. Instead, he leads a group of Hispanic entrepreneurs, chefs and food truck owners in Brandon, Riverview and Tampa who are turning their attention to feeding first responders, front-line health workers and people in need.
They have partnered with groups including Feeding Tampa Bay. The regionwide food bank has worked with a number of local food trucks to distribute up to 700 meals per day.
It’s a familiar role for Ithier, a 47-year-old husband and father of two. He left his native Puerto Rico in 2011 during an economic crisis then worked to deliver aid to the island territory after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 and an earthquake in 2018.
“We have to continue helping our families because there is a lot of need behind the door of a house," he said. "This does not end, even though many businesses are open and the government is trying to return to normal.”
Ithier learned to cook in the kitchen of El Sabor Criollo, his parents’ restaurant in the historic Puerto Rican coastal city of Ponce. He came to specialize in turning his culinary skills outward, toward special events and parties.
Last month, Ithier prepared and delivered 200 meals — Valencian paella and other Puerto Rican specialties — for the staff at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa. He had help from the Carlos Beltrán Baseball Academy Foundation.
Next month, accompanied by his friend Beltrán, the Puerto Rican-born major league all-star who retired in 2017, Ithier will deliver 200 meals and 200 toys to children in need at an event in Tampa.
He has worked to strengthen ties among Puerto Ricans in the Tampa Bay area by organizing, “Party of Kings — Customs and Traditions," designed to keep island traditions and culture alive. The first event was held in January 2018 on the streets of Clearwater and drew about 3,000 people.
The 2019 event, in Plant City, grew to 7,000 people, Ithier said.
“Seeing families and children happy is priceless," he said. "For me, that is the best gift in the world.”
Ithier settled in Tampa in 2010 with his family and opened his catering business, Hit F&B Entertainment in Riverview. Many of his clients are business people, entertainers and baseball players — among them, Beltrán, Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays, Venezuelan-born Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers and Puerto Rican-born Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros.
Ithier first connected with the baseball world catering an international tournament in Puerto Rico. He was the “caterino” or chef for teams from Cuba, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The contacts he made helped bring him to Florida.
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One of those joining Ithier in feeding people during the coronavirus is Adrián Castillo, 38, who owns a Tampa restaurant and food trucks in Brandon and Tampa.
Castillo’s specialty is the Latin American corn dish known as arepas, often served with fish, chicken, sausages or cheeses and especially popular in his native Venezuela. Castillo started selling arepas in 2012 in a food truck on North Armenia Avenue in Tampa. In 2015, he opened Nico’s Arepas Grill.
His native land is in the midst of an economic crisis so Castillo helps by collecting medicines and donations for children there.
Last month, Castillo’s kitchen cooked more than 250 free lunches for those on the front lines fighting COVID-19. The food was distributed through Tampa Carryout, a collaborative drive-in food truck outpost launched in March at the outdoor venue Tabellas at Delaney Creek on Causeway Boulevard.
"This country has given me a lot as an immigrant and in moments like the one we are living we have to be more proactive than ever,” Castillo said. “There are always ways to help our community.”
His business is off by 50 percent because of the coronavirus but Castillo has managed to survive on his savings, he said. Before the pandemic, his business had been steadily growing — about 15 percent a year, he said.
“It was not easy because we had to reduce everything, but this is temporary. Nothing we are seeing is going to last forever.”
If he can collect more donations, Castillo said, he’ll distribute more meals.
“It is not easy but we can try again. The need is all over the place.”
Also working to feed people in need is Carlos Carrillo, a 33-year-old Cuban-American who sells Cuban sandwiches from the food truck Coco’s Latin Cuisine.
Business almost disappeared with the coronavirus, Carrillo said, but he has survived on savings and the support of his family. He shut down for two weeks then reopened with a streamlined menu, focusing on condominiums and apartments where opportunities to eat out are now limited.
Still, Carrillo and his father Carlos, who operates Coco’s Sandwich Shop near Port Tampa Bay, have joined in the Tampa Carryout collaborative and continue to provide free meals, coffee and snacks to front-line health care workers.
“Many people have asked me why I do all this when businesses are suffering and there is no money. The only answer I find comes from solidarity,” Carrillo said.
A few weeks ago, Carrillo got a call from Hillsborough County authorities looking for businesses willing to help feed more than 100 health care workers at coronavirus testing sites set up by the county. He pitched in, setting up outside SouthShore Community Center in Ruskin.
“None of us are doing this to be on television or to become famous," Carrillo said. “It’s just common sense: Help when the people need it."
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