Eating responsibly

You know you want it. So go ahead: After your regal repast at The Savoy on Wednesday, April 30, order yourself the Truffles Mi Amore.

It begins with a smattering of fresh fruit (strawberries, grapes, kiwi) to prime the palate.

Next, the savory “cheeses” — Danish blue, creamy walnut, black truffle — to remind you to go to confession tomorrow, even if you’re not Catholic.

And finally, the proverbial piece de resistance — a troika of handcrafted truffles:

Macadamia-nut caramel. Amaretto espresso. And a chocolate disc dusted in dark-chocolate cocoa.

“Definitely for sinners only,” confirms Savoy pastry chef Hollie West.

Sure, you’ve just added another $8 to your dining bill (not to mention poking an additional hole in your belt). But for one special night, both your earlier meal and this crowning sweet indulgence can be purchased guilt-free.

On April 30, The Savoy joins roughly two dozen other independent Asheville eateries in putting their kitchens and bars in service to Dining Out For Life 2003, a new fund-raiser for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project. Participating restaurants (see “Avoiding Life-Lines”) will donate 20 percent of that day’s total receipts to WNCAP.

Service with a smile

Although this marks the Asheville debut of Dining Out For Life, the international fund-raiser is held at different times in more than 20 cities across the United States and Canada, licensing its name and providing organizational support to AIDS service organizations like WNCAP. Since the annual event’s beginnings in 1990, Dining Out For Life has generated more than $8 million.

Harry Brown, WNCAP’s fund-raising chairman, witnessed the benefit’s success firsthand in Atlanta, his former home city, where Dining Out supports Project Open Hand, an HIV/AIDS service organization upon whose board Brown still serves.

The fund-raiser, he thought, seemed an ideal fit with Asheville and its many independent eateries.

Typically, Dining Out For Life is most successful in places where local restaurants have formed some sort of professional association to advance their collective interests, notes WNCAP Executive Director Ron Curran.

That hadn’t happened here until about six months ago, when the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association was formalized to help its 22 dues-paying members pool resources and wield some combined political clout, explains Savoy owner Eric Scheffer, the organization’s Marketing and Promotions Committee chairman.

In late January, Brown approached Scheffer about Dining Out For Life 2003, and the fledgling association quickly signed on. (A couple of non-AIRA eateries, such as Laurey’s Catering, are also taking part.)

“This is one of the most important events of the year,” proclaims Doug Gall, co-owner of member restaurant Anntony’s Caribbean Cafe, which opened in the Grove Arcade last November. “How can you say no to something so good?”

The fund-raiser also packs another plus, notes Curran: potentially piquing public awareness of lesser-known independent eateries on a Wednesday, when business is typically a little slower.

“Each of these restaurants is independently owned and operated in Asheville,” Scheffer explains. “The money doesn’t get sent to some corporate headquarters in Dallas or Atlanta; it goes back into the community.”

“We see this as dually promoting Asheville [and] ourselves,” offers Curran.

Window on WNCAP

The local nonprofit has been an Asheville fixture since the mid-1980s, when HIV and AIDS first burst on the national scene, fueling public debate — and public fears.

“People were dying,” Curran recalls.

WNCAP, which has maintained an office at 30 Orchard St. since 1994, grew out of an informal group of volunteers who were trying to offer buddy support to Asheville residents with HIV and AIDS, he explains.

But as more AIDS-focused organizations and official funding sources began springing up across the country, the local all-volunteer group was hampered by the lack of a formal apparatus for tapping those resources, he continues. WNCAP was officially born in 1986.

Several years ago, the agency endured some very public growing pains, as questions were raised by several local gay activists about WNCAP accounting procedures and program successes, among other things. The resulting audit in 1995-96 found no wrongdoing, Curran notes.

“All nonprofits are subject to question,” he asserts.

WNCAP has also seen significant (and frequent) personnel and board changes, including a revolving door of executive directors before Curran signed on in January 2001; he’s the fourth person to hold the position since 1989.

“Ron is a stabilizing force for the agency,” Brown declares.

And that succession of very visible changes, adds Curran, made the agency appear to be in greater flux than it actually was.

“In spite of some hard times [for WNCAP], the services to our clients have been consistent,” he stresses. “That’s, I think, the most crucial thing.”

Besides Curran, WNCAP’s paid staff includes six case managers (one in Hendersonville), two outreach educators and a volunteer coordinator, plus a part-time accountant. Although the agency doesn’t provide direct medical services, it helps upward of 300 clients annually coordinate their care and deal with other basic needs.

A dollar here, a dollar there

WNCAP holds several annual fund-raisers, including its popular A Night to Remember (July 19 this year) and the Raise Your Hand dinner and auction (Nov. 1 at the Biltmore Estate’s Deerpark Restaurant), the latter begun years ago at O.Henry’s (see “Bar One” following this story).

But with money getting ever tighter, Brown felt WNCAP needed a third event.

“We’re not the only organization in town, God knows,” echoes longtime WNCAP board member Fred Friedman. “Everybody’s looking for dollars.”

And in recent years, a double whammy — the drying up of county-government funding for nonprofits and the growing public perception that AIDS is no longer such a big deal — has made fund raising even trickier for WNCAP.

Ironically, the continued success of what are popularly called the “AIDS cocktail” drugs — a variety of treatments that, taken together, have helped convert what was once, for many patients, a certain death sentence into a chronic, treatable condition — has muted public fears about the virulent viral infection.

“The perception now is that all [AIDS patients] have to do is take a pill,” Curran explains, adding, “The fact that they are now living doesn’t mean they don’t have needs.”

Accordingly, for organizations like WNCAP, client quality of life and public education have evolved into the biggest issues — in part because the stigma of AIDS hasn’t lessened.

“There are still those who would say that anyone with HIV deserves it,” Curran admits. “People are subject to discrimination because of the modes of transmission.”

AIDS is principally passed via sexual activity or IV drug use; blood-transfusion cases are rare. More and more, however, AIDS service agencies are assisting people who fall outside what Curran calls the “lifestyle perception” — such as mothers and teenagers.

Many people with the disease have limited financial resources, and treatment, besides being outrageously expensive, can be physically debilitating for patients.

“There’s still some serious suffering going on,” Curran reports.

Food for thought

Dining Out For Life 2003 will feature a cadre of official “ambassadors” (one stationed at each participating restaurant) who’ll try to entice friends and associates to their particular eatery and give out info about WNCAP to interested diners. Harry Brown and his 14 fellow WNCAP board members will serve in this capacity, as will members of the agency’s fund-raising committee and additional volunteers.

Most ambassadors will arrive at their posts around 5 p.m. on April 30, greeting diners and placing entry forms at each table as its cleared for new customers. The drawing — good for two round-trip AirTran tickets to anywhere in the continental U.S. where the airline flies — will be held at an after-party at Tressa’s Downtown Jazz & Blues (28 Broadway) starting at 9 p.m.

Brown’s experiences in Atlanta have him confident the new WNCAP event will only get bigger each year.

“This thing grows itself,” he predicts.

All participating restaurants will keep their regular hours (including the Tupelo Honey Cafe, which serves only breakfast and lunch on Wednesdays).

So mark your calendar. And on April 30, try that high-dollar wish dish at The Market Place. Ante up for a better bottle of vino at Vincenzo’s. And yes, dive into The Savoy’s decadent desserts.

You won’t be alone in overindulging.

“People have a tendency to spend maybe a little more if they know it’s for a good cause,” Brown notes with a smile.

For more information on Dining Out For Life, call 252-7489, go to www.diningoutforlife.com (click the Asheville link), or e-mail wncap@main.nc.us. Separate monetary donations to WNCAP should be sent to WNCAP/DOFL, P.O. Box 2411, Asheville, NC 28802-2411. Interested in joining the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association? Call Richard Laibson at 281-1400.

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