Thanksgiving is Glenda Hastings’ favorite day of the year. It isn’t because of the turkey, though she enjoys it. It isn’t because of the family memories it evokes, though she holds those close to her heart. It isn’t even because of the delicious dinners she grew up enjoying on her late mother’s – Donna’s – table, though that’s getting closer to the truth.
It’s because Hastings, owner of Napa Café, worked last Thanksgiving to fill her restaurant’s tables with family-style feasts for Memphians who are hungry, lonely and in need. It’s just the latest of Hastings’ big ideas that have turned into big events – and turned Napa Café into a business synonymous with giving back.
“What I do every day, I run a business and serve food, wine and service,” Hastings said. “That’s what I sell. To create something from nothing, sometimes people think that you have to have all the answers, you have to be organized, you have to research – there’s got to be more involved. What I love about this is no, you just have to take each step as it comes at you. When you create something, sometimes you don’t have all the answers, you just start.”
The first time Hastings “just started” a major philanthropic initiative, she jumped in feet first, armed with nothing more than knowledge she’d gathered from volunteer work, her restaurant as a venue, and a seed of an idea. For years, she’d donated Napa Café gift certificates to silent auctions. She also worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, volunteering several years ago to the role of leading the serving staff at its major yearly fund raiser, the Steak ‘n’ Burger Dinner and now sponsoring the event. That fund-raising dinner made her think. She owned a restaurant. Why couldn’t Napa Café host its own fund-raising event centered on food?
“I wanted to do a wine dinner that was not like typical wine dinners,” Hastings said. “It was the most unique thing I’ve done that actually led to something.”
She knew dinners that paired wines with specific foods were popular worldwide, and she’d also heard of events that paired wine and culinary offerings with dance or music. She brainstormed with her staff to come up with an event idea and a nonprofit that made sense as a beneficiary. Afterward, she headed out to check out Soulsville, a South Memphis community centered around the historic Stax Records and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“I took a drive out there and found out there was a whole world going on over there with Stax Records and Stax Museum, but also Stax Music Academy, an after-school music program for gifted musicians, and Soulsville Charter School.”
In Soulsville, Hastings’ seed of an idea bloomed.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to do this wine dinner and turn it into a fundraiser,’” she said. “Those words, that one sentence, changed the direction of everything that I would do over the next six years.”
Hastings brainstormed with her team again, and together they came up with the name “Heart Full of Soul.” Over the ensuing weeks Hastings reached out to representatives of Soulsville.
“It’s odd for somebody to call and say, ‘Hey, I want to do an event and I want to raise money for you,’” she said, laughing, “They didn’t know what to do with it.”
Hastings solicited partners and donations of items like linen and china. She planned the event to run two nights to maximize attendance. And she worked with Stax Music Academy to plan the program, which featured music by 15 to 20 kids involved with the school. That first Heart Full of Soul Event, which happened in 2012, raised $13,000. The second and third years, it raised $15,000, and the fourth year, it raised $27,000.
In 2016, the event’s fifth year, Hastings handed Stax Music Academy a check for $50,000.
“We serve primarily low-income, at-risk students,” said Christy Valentine, chief development officer of Soulsville Foundation. “About 80 percent of our population depends on free or reduced lunch. So we depend on people like Glenda to make this program successful.”
Not only has Heart Full of Soul raised funds for Stax Music Academy, it’s also raised awareness of Soulsville’s mission and given the kids a venue to display their talents to help their own school.
“The ensemble is called The Rhythm Section,” Valentine said of the students who perform each year at Heart Full of Soul. “It’s about 12 to 15 kids, and it’s every conceivable part of a band – the horns, guitars, drums, lead and backup singers. Also, our kids run the sound systems and the microphones and do all the engineering, so we teach that as well. They perform for a solid two hours and do several sets throughout the course of the evening. They love it.”
The first year, the event drew 57 attendees its first night and 63 the next. The $125 ticket bought guests a six-course dinner with wine pairings set to music by the Stax students. Said Hastings, “We didn’t know where it was going, but it was coming from a good place.”
And what started out as a simple idea for a wine dinner has turned into a major donation for an organization that is truly grateful for the partnership.
“It has grown to such that it’s something that we depend on financially to keep our organization afloat,” Valentine said. “It continues to grow every year and we’re anxious to see where it heads next. Last year was a big step for us, with new sponsors and new people coming to the show, and that parlayed into even more partnerships for us, so it’s very valuable to us.”
And through it all, Hastings has learned a lot about giving back.
“That event definitely made me realize I needed to do things more deliberately,” she said. “I had been waiting on people to show up at my front door and ask me for things. As a business owner, I thought my goal in life was to run this business as best I could and enjoy it. Because of Heart Full of Soul, I realized it’s up to me sometimes to go out and realize what needs to be done.”
And so on that Thanksgiving almost two years ago, when Hastings first felt the pull to use her restaurant for good on a day when it had always stood shuttered and vacant, she knew she had the power to make it happen. She started brainstorming again around August, and by the time Thanksgiving 2016 rolled around, she was ready to launch Donna’s Table.
With the help of around 50 volunteers, Hastings hosted nearly 100 diners in Napa Café, feeding them more than dinner.
“I thought about who I’d be feeding and what their needs were,” Hastings said. “Obviously if someone is hungry, it’s food. But I thought, what else does someone need on Thanksgiving? I visualized not having a home on Thanksgiving. What would I crave more than anything else? That would be a sense of normalcy. In this country, no matter your socioeconomic background, everybody grows up with that turkey. And with people on Thanksgiving.”
And so Hastings was determined that every table for eight she set inside Napa Café would feature its own turkey, with candlelight, festive table settings and pass-around sides, family-style. As with Heart Full of Soul, Donna’s Table came together with help from others – in particular Chuck Hutton Chevrolet, which signed on as sponsor for the event.
The partnership was serendipitous – while she was in the thick of planning Donna’s Table, Chuck Hutton’s general manager, Kerry Melson, happened to walk into the restaurant. Hastings shared with him her idea.
“Before I could even ask him, he said, ‘I’m in,’” Hastings said. “He said, ‘You’re going to need someone to sponsor it, right? I’m all in. How much is it going to cost?’”
Added Melson, “I guess it was just a meeting of like minds. We also partnered with Agape to feed 60 or so families last Thanksgiving. We think giving back is an important thing.”
Chuck Hutton Chevrolet’s CFO was among the volunteers who carved the turkeys. And for future years, Hastings of course has views of doubling the event’s size, with dreams of feeding up to 200 people. Chuck Hutton plans to remain on board, committing to sponsor the event in future years, as well.
“Glenda’s just a high-energy fireball,” Melson said. “I’m a big fan, and we are going to be involved. I’m a big fan of Donna’s Table, frankly a huge fan of Glenda’s, and we’re looking forward to it this year.”
Though she dreams big and works hard for others, Hastings also doesn’t forget her day-to-day mission and the people who help her complete it. She said the key to using her resources to give back to the community is to put Napa Café’s employees first.
“I think it’s true for any business, but I think especially in the restaurant business because we have a large staff, ranging from 16 to 60, I think our work begins with our employees,” she said. “What we give to our employees is ultimately what we give to our customers. I think that a giving mentality is about more than raising money or awareness, it’s about creating an atmosphere that’s open to helping someone.”
In the process, she admits, she’s found a new sense of purpose, as well as joy. After wrapping up the first Donna’s Table – a tribute, in part, to her mom – Hastings took a minute to reflect on her Thanksgiving Day.
“It was, like, the most glorious day I’d ever had in my life in this restaurant,” she said.