mcnearsfamilyrestaurant Counter-clockwise from far right: McNear's owners Carrie and Ken O'Donnell with three of their four children, Joe, Tom and Shennon. Courtesy of the McDonnell Family.

No one knows when a sea of tickets will set a chef’s heart racing again. No one knows when a bartender will be slammed, a host unable to squeeze you in without a reservation. The only thing we do know: it won’t be soon.

A tough time to run a restaurant.

And, yet, tough times bring out the best in Ken O’Donnell and his team at McNear’s Saloon and Dining House. They made headlines during the fires of 2017 and 2019 when, free of charge, they fed first responders and fire refugees. McNear’s even provided valuable floor space to become an ad hoc staging ground for volunteer efforts.

One of many delicious meals prepared by McNear’s for COTS

At COTS, we’ve always known how generous McNear’s is. They’ve been fantastic donors since our early days, and, for the last year, they’ve cooked, delivered and served wonderful meals to everyone who comes to eat at Mary’s Table. McNear’s Day is a great treat for diners—especially on Thanksgiving. Ken and his wife Carrie serve dishes right off their sister restaurant Seared’s catering menu. But we think our staff members love McNear’s Day best because it provides them a chance to catch their breath and prepare for other meals.

Now, in addition to their COTS delivery, the McNear’s team is also delivering one hundred free weekly meals to the staff at the Petaluma Health Center. And they’re providing free meals to local restaurant employees who’ve been laid off or seen their hours cut. Unemployment can be slow to arrive, Ken says, and even when it does come, it can’t pay all the bills. A good meal is a phone call away for any struggling restaurant employee.

Ken says that decisions about where to give are made with his business partners, Bente Niles and Jeff and Nancy Harriman. When they leased the adjoining Mystic Theater to Ineffable Music, they stipulated that one dollar from every ticket sale would continue to go into a community giving fund. The new theater management was happy to agree, and happy to have Ken and his team decide how to use it. “They know that we know the community best,” Ken says.


Drawing of McNear’s and the Mystic, courtesy of the artist, Richard Sheppard

Ken also credits his staff for working on community projects with enthusiasm. During the fires, for example, many of his staff members would finish a shift and then jump into a volunteer effort. Ken singles out cook Roberto Ramirez for doing 90 percent of the cooking for COTS. When Ken arrives at the shelter, he tells our clients, “Roberto has your back!”

Why give so much? “It’s my community. It’s where I live,” Ken says. He’s a graduate of St. Vincent’s Elementary and Petaluma High School. His four kids, Joe, Katie, Shennon and Thomas work with him in the business and Carrie teaches school locally. All of them share his commitment to community service.

Ken knows almost everyone in town, including many COTS clients. “Too many,” he says. “It’s hard to see people you know going through a tough time.”

Before COVID-19, he and Carrie used to dish up their COTS meals themselves. “People are so appreciative when they come through the line,” Ken says. Now, with social distancing, it’s not possible for them to serve. “We miss it,” Ken says.

Ken grew up “very limited financially,” he says. “That makes you see how close you can be to it [homelessness].” He and Carrie “got to know people at COTS. We got to hear about when they got jobs and housing. It’s a phenomenal feeling.” COTS is “close to my heart,” he says.

Right before the shelter-in-place order, Ken had just remodeled McNear’s second floor to host live music. Now, he’s using the space to organize supplies for his community meal projects. “We’ll adjust,” he says. “We always do.”

Thank you, McNear’s team!

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