When Salvatore Forte turned 30, he decided it was time to make a list of things he wanted to do before he kicked the proverbial bucket. On the roster: get a dog, go skydiving, and give back to the community.
Now 41, Forte is the co-owner of HOM Bay Ridge. “It’s modern meets Moroccan meets antique reproduction,” he laughs, pointing to an array of high-end wine racks, lamps, candles, jewelry, and decorative items that make the shop the area’s go-to spot for gifts and treats. But it’s not just the funky chic that has people talking.
Several years ago, Forte found himself becoming more and more distressed by stories of people out of work because of the recession. His life partner, Damien Boing, was one of the casualties, losing his position in the Accounts Payable department of a large company despite a 10-year track record with the employer.
“I knew I couldn’t afford to finance unemployed people,” Forte says. So what to do? Forte’s diamond nose stud twinkles and as the story unfolds, he explains that he began serving food in the back of the store about five years ago. “We’d been selling bottled jams, dips, and sauces made by Stonewall Kitchen since opening the store in 2002,” he begins, “and in 2006 decided to put in a few tables so that we could offer a sit-down menu of muffins, teas, and spreads. We did that for a while—Damien would moonlight as the weekend chef—until it became clear that what people wanted was breakfast.”
A weekend brunch quickly evolved into a five-day-a-week repast—Wednesday to Sunday. And that’s when a way to help the unemployed crystallized in Forte’s mind: Why not serve a no-cost meal to anyone who comes in and says that he or she is unemployed? “One of the first things people give up when they lose a job is going out to eat,” Forte says. “Feeding people is simple. It was something I knew I could do, something that makes me feel good.”
Although Boing took to the idea immediately and was eager to begin, other friends warned Forte that as word of the policy got out, HOM would likely start each day with a line stretching the length of Third Avenue. “My feeling was, I didn’t know what to expect, but whatever it was would be what it was,” Forte quips. He goes on, explaining that he was similarly unconcerned about scam artists ripping him off. “Look, if you lie about being unemployed, karma will bite you. I take you on your word.” Forte’s hands move quickly, his thick Canarsie accent evident as he dismisses the idea of people taking advantage of him.
Instead, he focuses on the food that is offered. “Damien works his magic by himself. He creates the menu. I have no idea what each meal costs to make,” he admits. Whether it’s green eggs and ham—made with spinach, not food coloring—vanilla and almond crusted french toast, or homemade blueberry scones, Forte says that, “When someone comes into HOM or calls me and tells me they’re unemployed, they’re going to get whatever they want from that day’s menu. No questions asked.”
Offering free food and drink is particularly meaningful for Boing, and his interest in both cooking and serving runs deep. Not only does he know what it’s like to lose a job, he knows what it’s like to live without. “I grew up in a trailer park, the oldest of seven kids,” he says, his South Carolina lilt still audible despite years of city living. “Serving brunch to unemployed people has taken me back to my childhood. Growing up, we had food stamps and got little presents at holiday time from the Fire Department. I know from personal experience that when someone reaches out to people in need, it means a lot. A no-cost meal is exactly the kind of thing that we could have used when I was a kid.”
Boing credits his mom, a Filipino immigrant, with teaching him about food preparation. “I had to help her every day,” he says. “I had to step up for the other kids.” Although he has not attended culinary school, he has become a seasoned chef, cooking with a small panini press since HOM is not big enough to accommodate a large restaurant oven or stove top.
“My favorite things to cook?” Boing answers quickly: “Savory items. Appetizers. They’re quick to make and you can feed more people fast. Until recently I didn’t bake, but I’ve tried to cross over because people are always coming into the store and asking me to make a cake for a birthday or graduation. I recently made red velvet cupcakes and people loved them,” he says with a grin.
Not surprisingly, the need to keep things fresh has pushed Forte and Boing to be innovative and HOM now serves a full-course dinner—completely prepared by Boing for up to 30 people—to honor each month’s new moon. They also host a Friday evening happy hour. What’s more, Forte and Boing continually rack their brains to find ways to bring additional customers into the store. Every now and again a Tarot reader comes in, movies are shown, and jazz is played.
Furthermore, as news of the availability of the no-cost brunch has become more widely known, people supportive of the idea have been drawn in. “Rather than a line of jobless folks running down the block, employed and retired people come in to thank me for what I’m doing,” Forte says. “Marty Markowitz gave me a citation and I got another one from City Councilman Vincent Gentile. I was nominated for the Brooklyn Community Foundation’s Do Gooder Award, so I’ve been well recognized,” he says.
That said, Forte admits that some folks have treated the idea of a cost-free meal with skepticism, dishing out more than a little Brooklyn attitude. After all, most of us were raised on the truism that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. “As New Yorkers, we’re jaded,” he says. “One guy called about coming in and it was like he was interviewing me. What kind of food is it? Who cooks it? He had a hard time understanding that there were no strings attached. He didn’t get it, that if I never saw him again, that was okay. I was just happy to give him a meal, on me.”
“Look, I’m alive. I’m breathing. I’ve learned not to sweat the little things,” Forte continues. At the same time, he admits that he has had to do a bit of belt tightening since launching the program. “Business is down approximately 40 percent since 2008,” he says. Nonetheless, his resolve to continue feeding the unemployed remains ironclad. Has he done anything to encourage other business owners to offer direct help to those in need, I ask. Forte becomes thoughtful and uncharacteristically quiet. “No,” he says, “but that’s a good idea.”
One can assume that it won’t be long before Forte gets on the horn, prodding other entrepreneurs to follow the lead he and Boing have initiated. Once done, you can rest assured that he’ll return to his bucket list. Still to do: skydiving.