“Meet us at 3:50. JJ’s place. Let’s go!” Tony explained before jumping off our Google Meet. Harlem Grown has partnered with Field Trip Harlem on Lenox and 116th to deliver food to the families that Tony supported on a regular basis.
My introduction to Tony Hillery at Settepani’s was low-key so I didn’t expect much when we met that Sunday. My wife wanted to help with a garden somewhere in Harlem so I took her to what I thought would be 30 minute meeting. Three hours later we’d learned everything there was to know about a decade’s long passion project that fed a community literally and figuratively.
My sons and I arrived while Chef JJ’s team was still preparing a few of the hundreds of meals their partnership were delivering since the schools that Harlem Grown mainly services shut down due to COVID-19. The three square meals a day that the family shelters spread throughout Harlem were given did not sit well with what Tony learned about food. He and JJ could do better.
So Tony raised the money to fund a program that kept a restaurant staffed while giving a proper meal to the kids that call him Mr. Tony.
Tony is a ball of focused energy when it comes to his business and his kids. His team knows all too well what he can do when he’s focused on something. And Tony knows that none of those accomplishments happens without his staff. Poised, professional and enjoying the moment, they are there for Tony — even it means grabbing dinner in the truck like his right-hand Maisha Khalfani was doing between coordinating media and food delivery.
I recognize the relationship between Tony and his team because I’ve seen the big idea followed by the eye-rolling followed by the tireless effort by everyone to turn that idea into a reality. The eye-rolling is one-part ‘here we go again’ and another-part ‘we made it happen last time so…”
This particular delivery was followed by PIX11’s Greg Mocker. Most of the news out of Harlem, Queens and the Bronx is heartbreaking because of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic is having in neighborhoods that were already struggling. Systemic inequities, mistrust and neglect aren’t always a recipe for something positive.
But the work that Tony and JJ have done caught the eyes of people looking for the good stories that are happening.
During this hour-long event we all wore the prescriptive masks so you couldn’t see anyone’s face. But if you know Tony you know that he was enjoying his payment for the work that he puts.
When you get to hear Tony’s story in person you know that he is working for one thing and one thing alone.
Even if he can’t see those kids when he’s dropping off food or on a call raising money, he can see them every time he mentions their names, their stories.
This doesn’t make Tony a savior by any means. He’s a business man. He founded and operates a well-oiled machine that employs and feeds the community.
But if he’s not smiling it’s because he thinks there’s a kid not smiling.
So start the truck.
Here comes Mr. Tony.