Bay City restaurant owners dish out warm meals and support to those in need

After withstanding an extended period of closures and dining restrictions throughout the pandemic, most would understand if local restaurants were simply fending for themselves and trying to survive. However, a quick glimpse around Bay City actually reveals the opposite to be true. Despite difficulties, restaurant owners like Greg Kimbrue and Earl Bovia remain dedicated to helping those who need it most in the community.

VNO Wine Warehouse & New Age Restaurant, 512 E. Midland St., owned by Greg and Peggy Kimbrue, and Bay City Bills Bar & Grill, 1215 Michigan Ave., owned by Earl and Michelle Bovia, are two examples of the generosity in Bay City. Each has made continued efforts to target and assist citizens who have been hit hardest by the shockwaves of COVID-19.

VNO served free chicken dinners to hundreds of people three times this winner to help those who are struggling financially. (Photo courtesy of VNO Wine Warehouse & New Age Restaurant)For Kimbrue, experiences with charitable events have been plentiful in his time as a restaurant owner, starting back when he bought The Brass Lantern in Downtown Bay City in 1995. “We came to quickly understand that it is just an empty building without people. You have to be willing to give back.”

Kimbrue used this experience to his advantage, and he has repeatedly offered meals and assistance since the first shutdown last March. The Kimbrues have owned VNO for eight years, and Greg also owns River Rock Cafe, 614 E. Midland St., with longtime business partner Willis Wells. Between the two restaurants, Kimbrue employs 35 employees, so he sees firsthand what service workers are going through. “The goal with this was to help restaurant and hospitality workers and all others deserving or in need.”

Earl Bovia says helping others comes naturally. 'That’s how you act as a citizen. You give back to your community.' (Photo courtesy of Bay City Bills Bar & Grill)Trusting in what he knows, Kimbrue and his team have now put on three different chicken dinners. “I’ve got a pretty good knowledge of how to prepare a lot of chicken dinners. We know how to deal with 900 pieces of chicken, as rudimentary as it sounds.”

At the most recent event on Jan. 31, roughly 650 meals were served by 12 volunteers using an assembly line process. “We started at noon with 36 cars already in line. By 1:15 we had run all of the food out of the restaurant,” Kimbrue says. Across three chicken dinners, 1,824 people in the community were fed.

“Throughout the three events, I coordinated with McLaren (Bay Region) and we took food to the hospital, the Good Samaritan Rescue Mission, and to the (Bay Area) Women’s Center, too. With these boxes to the hospital, I put a message on all of them. How we appreciate what they do for the community. If we have done one small thing to do the most good for somebody, that makes it all worthwhile,” says Kimbrue.

Aside from chicken dinners, Kimbrue also helped put on a fundraiser for the CAN Council of the Great Lakes Bay Region that culminated in November of 2020 with the “Dine and Unwind” event, a virtual wine and beer tasting that gave 100% of the $45,000 profit back to the CAN Council.

In similar fashion, Bovia, approaching his second year as owner of Bay City Bills, tries to spot needs within the community and find a way to assist. ”When we shut down the first time, we had given some meals to McLaren. That’s how it all started. We did it a couple of different times and went to other businesses that were working frontline as well. We felt it was a way for us to give back to the community, because the community really supported us during all of this.”

Greg Kimbrue says many in people have stepped up to help during the pandemic. 'It’s not as if we are the only ones out here helping people. I applaud all other members of the community doing the same thing.' (Photo courtesy of VNO Wine Warehouse)Bovia also started the Bay County Take Out and Delivery Options page on Facebook in March of 2020, a project that has taken on a life of its own, according to Bovia, as the membership total climbs to nearly 12,000. “It was started as a way to help restaurants get their stuff out there. It allows me to highlight businesses who may need help. My mentality has always been that I don’t need to step over everybody else to make my business better. I am all about trying to help everybody in the area, not just my own business.”

After receiving a call from the Bay City Lions Club during the Christmas season, Bovia and his wife helped coordinate a fundraiser to benefit service workers in the area. “Christmas is normally the best time of the year for people in this industry. Some people were laid off. There were issues with getting unemployment, and others just weren’t used to being in this situation and didn’t know what to do. It grew beyond what I thought it would have because of the community. People wanted to know what they could do to help.”

When all was said and done, between the GoFundMe and the participation of other service clubs, over $11,000 was raised during the Christmastime event, and Bovia is quick to give credit to the community: “Collaboration made it happen. I just had the resources to bring it together.”

On Jan. 24, Bovia also held a chicken dinner fundraiser for one of his employees who was injured in a serious car crash. The accident left her unable to work, so the Bovias were quick to act. “I said to my wife, ‘Of course you know we’re going to do something.’ It wasn’t a matter of if we would do something but when. Our employees are like family to us.”

Most recently, on Feb. 2, Bovia and a host of others held a drive-through event for service workers to get a free sloppy joe and pizza meal. What started as a small idea quickly snowballed as more community members got on board. The event was cosponsored by Bay City Bills, Academy Mortgage, Jet’s Pizza, Golden Tan and Hair Salon, Red Lobster, Beaver’s Pub, and Castaways.

Both Kimbrue and Bovia, longtime Bay City Lions Club members, recognize that need has no season, and continue to actively plan community fundraising events.

On Feb. 21, Kimbrue and VNO will coordinate with the Bay Area Women’s Center to offer the “Wildly Gourmet Dinner and Wine Tasting” event. The event features a five-course meal and an online auction. “People can choose one of four wines to go with their meal, and there will be a live auction streamed. The hope is that people will take their meal home and then stream the auction. We’re hoping that this event will raise between $25,000 and $30,000.” Tickets for this event are available online through the Bay Area Women’s Center website.

Bovia also has future plans in the works, including a food truck giveaway that is currently being organized.

Both men credit their parents and membership with the Lions Club for instilling in them a sense of community spirit and giving. Bovia adds, “That’s how you act as a citizen. You give back to your community.”

“It’s not as if we are the only ones out here helping people. I applaud all other members of the community doing the same thing. There are a number of others who have stepped up in the realm of what they can do,” Kimbrue says. “The best way that we in the restaurant business can look at this is that the comeback is going to far exceed the setback.”



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