A Southern California restaurateur is celebrating his millionth meal served — but he won't take a dime from the customers.
Bruno Serato says serving free pasta to over a thousand hungry children a day in Orange County is its own reward. His Anaheim White House Restaurant has hosted free meals through a non-profit called "Caterina’s Club," named after Serato’s mother, for 10 years.
Serato’s mother was the inspiration for the program. In 2005, after Serato and his mother stopped by an Anaheim Boys & Girls Club, Caterina saw one boy eating nothing but potato chips for dinner, he said.
"She definitely did not like that! I mean, imagine Italian mom — pasta, pasta, pasta!" Serato said. Caterina insisted the chef make the children dinner, and the program to feed hungry children in Southern California was born shortly thereafter.
Serato’s restaurant serves around 1,200 free meals to children each day, a feast involving 90 pounds of pasta and 15 gallons of marinara sauce, he said. The program served its milestone millionth meal Tuesday.
It hasn’t always been easy. After the housing bubble crashed, more children than ever began showing up as his restaurant’s profits plummeted by 30 to 40 percent, he said. But Serato said the program was too important to abandon.
Billy Saldana was one of those children fed by Serato at the Boys & Girls Club — 10 years ago. Now he's a volunteer there. Saldana said he’d never had pasta before, and didn’t know what it was at first.
"Having the pasta right there every day, smelling it, when you get the fork and you eat it in your mouth, it just feels like wow," he said. Saldana said he "felt like there was somebody out there who cares."
Serato’s mother, who made him cook for those 30 children that day in 2005, passed away a few months ago. "It was the hardest day of my life," he said.
But Serato isn’t content to simply sling pasta. He’s branching out to help families leave cramped motel rooms. His program gives families enough money to cover first and last month’s rent and a security deposit — an up-front payment required to lease an apartment, but which can be a challenge for some families to afford.
Lizz Figueroa, her husband, and their five children live in one of those tiny Anaheim motel rooms. “The only thing I've been telling them for years, 'God has something better for us. God has something better for us,” she said.
Serato visited with the family recently and promised to help them find a better place. They will be the 80th family helped through his program.
"No more eating standing up and no more doing their homework in the bathroom or fighting for who's going to do their homework first or east first,” she said. “I’m very excited.”
"He's a very great man," she said.