Saturday, November 10, 2012

City Cafe A Refuge From Disaster

Behind the brown-papered windows of “It’s-a-Wrap” café, warm pumpkin tones and new furnishings were ready to launch the next chapter for owner and chef David T. Holmes III.

 Hurricane Sandy rewrote it.

Holmes, 28, celebrated the one-year anniversary of the café in June and was also just about to become the director of the soup kitchen at a large church on the block at Park and Seventh, a crossroads not only for thousands of commuters but also a gathering point for many of the city’s most needy. The storm struck at the end of the month, closing the kitchen just when it was normally a vital resource for people in need. Only some commercial buildings, including the café’s location, had power in the storm’s wake.

One person saw Holmes stopped in traffic and asked him where to go for something to eat. The plea brought home the storm’s devastation.

“People were starving out here,” Holmes said.

At 5:51 a.m. on the Wednesday after Sandy hit, Holmes said, “I felt God just wake me up.”

Soon hand-lettered signs overlaid the brown paper on the café’s windows, offering free coffee, soup, phone charging and shelter from the cold.

“Not open for business, but open for relief” one sign read.

Holmes thought maybe he could help for a day, but he said Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs found out about his effort and urged him to continue, as the city sought places to shelter and host residents with no light or power.

Holmes even symbolically unplugged the café’s cash register for what turned out to be 10 days of selfless giving.

“I believe God gave me the mission,” he said.

As temperatures dipped down to freezing, nearby apartment dwellers and homeless alike mingled daily in the warm café. Some visitors were busy checking e-mail or blogging, while others who use the Plainfield Public Library as a daily haven just needed to be in out of the cold. At 3 p.m. each day, volunteers served an improvised lunch to the crowd. Donors came by with canned food, coloring books and crayons, even winter coats. Under a ceiling beam with the painted words, “… but He still loves you,” people waited for life to return to normal.
The library opened on Nov. 8 and the café began to empty. On Nov. 9, with power back at most nearby apartment buildings, Holmes, also known as Chef D, prepared to close and take stock. The newly refinished floors were scuffed and would have to be redone. The new carpeting, stained and dirty from traffic throughout Sandy and a sloppy nor’easter that followed, would most likely have to be thrown out. Even the tabletops needed refurbishing.
 Holmes has some slight hopes of assistance from outside sources as he picks up where he left off in late October. He’s also hoping those who appreciated his hospitality will come back as paying customers and bring their friends along. Whatever happens, he can look back on a call well answered.

“It sparked a response for civic duty in a sense,” he said. “Those who didn’t have much still wanted to give much.”

Among those who appreciated what he did, resident Jade Haywood said, "It was a help for me because it really saved me."

Haywood said the cafe, which was open from mid-morning to early evening, was the only place she could get information through television or the internet in the community. Without power, she had even missed the presidential election results.

Haywood said of Holmes, "He's a good young man."

Plainfield Councilwoman Rebecca Williams commented, "Chef D's selflessness and genuine concern for our city's struggling residents shows how we as a community can come together in times of crisis. Some of my updates on the status of the restoration were posted from his cafe. He and his crew kept us warm, cheerful, and well-fed--what an awesome young man!"

Volunteers Jackie Glaspy, Jeremy Rodas, Zina Gregory and Isaiah Robinson helped Holmes welcome about 250 visitors a day to the café, which began several years ago as Heritage Internet Café. Holmes changed the name in June 2011 along with the menu, which now features wrap sandwiches and salads.

He made a similar outreach to the community when Hurricane Irene struck in August 2011, but did not see an increase in business.

 Now, he says, “Hopefully God will say, I can trust you with more opportunities.”

The café at 631 Park Avenue in Plainfield is closed again for renovations. Check It’s-A-Wrap Café on Facebook for updates on its reopening.



  1. What a touching story! I saw the signs and saw the people going in and out but never went in since we were lucky to count with gas and hot water the whole time. This Cafe/Restaurant has been one of the two places we go to for cake here in Plainfield -their German Chocolate cake is delicious!- And this past October I found out that once a month they have a live jazz band playing and I believe is a dress up evening with candle lights on the table and all that goes along with dressing up. I believe it is the second Saturday of the month. This restaurant is the first to offer such an ambiance here in Plainfield since I moved here and we sure are looking forward to attend their next live jazz night. After reading your story I will make sure we support this business for more than just cake! Thanks Bernice!

  2. It was wonderful to be able to empty our freezer and donate lots of food to help Dave's splendid efforts. (And of course it prevented all that food from spoiling.) Apparently there were other places accepting food donations and providing food and shelter to those who needed it. I wish the city had put out the word so that people would have known. Perhaps some enterprising soul might now collect such information and make it widely known, so that the next time disaster strikes--and there will be a next time--Plainfield citizens would know where to go for food and shelter, and where to make such donations.

  3. Why wasn't Rebecca helping us in our neighborhoods as we suffered without power for 12 days. Typical politician, she is more interested in the photo op.

    1. Rebecca was one of the few council people that was visible and engaged during this horrible period. I would be interested to know what you think she should have done specifically to assist "your neighborhood". You might want to consider analyzing the mayor's role as well as that of the City Administrator - a 4th grader could have had a more effective response to this disaster. Hopefully we can toss her out next year and get this city focused on getting some things done instead of wondering what that non-existent Mayor is NOT doing now.

  4. Bernice, Thanks for posting the comment by Anonymous at 10:23 AM. I find it amazing that she has decided to place the responsibility and burden of the city's efforts on my shoulders alone. Amazing. She has placed similar comments on my blog know, the ones with the updates and information that I have been posting since October 29. She reads my blog, so she would have read the following, from 11/3: "As we were going door-to-door today with FEMA and emergency shelter information, we were on a street where some neighbors were in the process of cutting into a huge tree with lots of downed wires, etc. They had taped off with electrical tape what they thought were dead wires, thinking it was safe, and were using chain saws on the huge tree. We informed them that what they were doing was very dangerous. A PSE&G worker was electrocuted yesterday when BACKFEED electrified a wire. He is in intensive care. Certainly, it's frustrating to still see trees blocking some areas, but it is better to wait for it to be done--even the pros can be injured...." I find the hyper-focus on my efforts (as opposed to those of other local elected officials and county freeholders and state representatives) rather strange. I fear it is "politics," rather than any substantive knowledge of what I have done.


  5. Susan Lattimore-JacksonNovember 11, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    I must say this young man and his father, who owns the computer shop next door, certainly give so much to the community. They were serving much more than soup, coffee and free gadget charging; they offered Hope and Charity to those who were without power or heat for more than twelve days. Their support of Plainfield began well before the storm and will continue after its' effects are gone. And I must say, the staff possesses the same kind spirit and love that shines throughout this establishment.

  6. I heartily concur with Susan's wonderful comment above! I have known Chef D's dad, David II, ever since I came to Plainfield 14 years ago. He has taken care of my computer needs since 1998, and has always provided superior service with a smile. Thus, it is not surprising to see the next generation of the Holmes family doing the same. Hope and charity, indeed!


  7. Wow... this article had me in tears! thanks Bernice... again my only intention was to do what God required me to do! --- On a side note, "Anonymous at 10:23 AM" Councilwoman Williams had no idea this story would be covered nor published. She was there using the services provided to ALL of the neighborhood/community that was affected by the storm. While she was there, she offered assistance and pointed the other guest to the various services they were entitled to by Fema and the city! -- Also, the Mayor was visible as well as helpful in this whole process. I'm proud of how our city, Plainfield, came together in a tragic time to support each other best as possible. My name is Chef D' and I approve this comment! (just a little politician humor) :-)