ADEL, Iowa — He stretched the numbers and wrestled the accounts, but the math didn’t add up, Al Laudencia’s accountant told him in mid-March.
Big Al’s BBQ wasn’t going to make payroll come Tuesday.
And the pork, brisket and chicken already slathered with Laudencia’s famous rubs in anticipation of a busy weekend weren’t going to keep through the indoor-dining shutdown necessitated by the nascent coronavirus just beginning its sweep across our state.
Big Al’s two locations — an 80-top in Adel and a 600-seater in Des Moines — are dine-in places, neighborhood joints with waitresses who have regulars and regulars who have usuals. No way take-out tickets would buoy the restaurants.
“What are you going to do?” the accountant asked.
The words echoed as Laudencia’s world slowed, the country crooners belting in his restaurant fading to near silence. Laudencia, 54, had faced this question many times before.
First, when his beloved mother, the woman who taught him food embodied chefs' emotions and forged an ironclad tether to their roots, died after an extended illness. Then, when an alcohol addiction rendered him homeless and penniless, forcing him to beg friends to look through their couch cushions for change enough to afford a pint to calm his nerves.
Again, when he regained control of his life and kicked his habit. January 6, he marked on a 2009 calendar with a big black “X,” was the first day of the rest of his life.
And especially when he followed his culinary dreams, buying a meat smoker he really couldn’t afford and starting a catering company with about $200 in his pocket. After each gig, he reinvested the profits, growing bit by bit from roving caterer to food truck to brick-and-mortar to a second location, with sights on more.
The question always felt like a fault line opening. One misstep, and he could fall into the cavern below.
When faced with a hard hand before, Al had folded, choosing to leave the table. But this time he was going to play his cards, take the uncertainty round by round. Just do the next right thing and the next and the next.
Al calls his answer divine intervention. The cruelty of life’s most important decisions is that there’s rarely time to think through the details before responding, and Al certainly didn’t. But his impulse would ripple far out from his restaurant on this small Iowa town square, touching countless lives along the way.
“What are you going to do, Al?” the accountant repeated.
He took a breath: “I'm going to give it away.”
A serving of spirit
Growing up in 1970s in one of the only minority families in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa, Laudencia had friends, but he stood out. A scrawny, shy kid with a bowl cut, he looked like “an Asian nerd” straight out of central casting, he said.
Minor miracles, or “God moments” as Laudencia calls them, have long been part of the family’s lore. After Laudencia’s Filipino grandfather died in World War II, his grandmother became pen pals with a Midwestern family through a Methodist Church program. That family eventually sponsored Laudencia’s father, Rodolfo, to come study in America. And when time came for Rodolfo to pay them back, they told him to pay the kindness forward instead.
Rodolfo worked long hours while Laudencia’s mother, Emma, ruled the roost. She expected her sons, Al and his younger brother, Harry, to learn to be gentlemen and, especially, to keep house. Laundry, dusting, cleaning, yardwork, whatever she did, they were right there next to her.
“She would say, ‘Kids, I’m not always going to be there for you,’” Al remembered. “’You can’t rely on anybody except yourself. You need to know how to do these things. It's important.’”
Laudencia, barely taller than the hem of his mother’s apron, always looked forward to the lessons in the kitchen.
His mother discovered how to be a good American housewife in the pages of Better Homes & Gardens and Gourmet magazine. She’d try anything they suggested, following the recipe diligently as she cut and chopped, carefully imitating the professionals. Remember, she told Al, people eat with their eyes.
“Once I learned to cook eggs, I got up every Saturday morning and made sunny side up eggs with bacon or ham, whatever we had, and rice,” Laudencia said. And the eggs always had to be perfectly round, no dashes of wayward yolk in the whites. People eat with their eyes, his mother’s words rang in his head.
Emma cooked roast goose and tomato aspic and beef tongue — so much better than steak, Al tells me — and Waldorf Astoria cake complete with holly sprigs for the holidays. The scents of tarragon and rosemary and turmeric and cardamom danced in their kitchen air.
After following a recipe once, Emma cooked by feel. Food was emotional, she told Al, each serving held just a little bit of your spirit, a little bit of your soul. That’s why a stranger becomes a friend as soon as you break bread, she said.
Success is important, she cautioned, but a table full of friends makes a rich life.
At 5:30 p.m. on the dot, the family sat for dinner, food in the middle, a prayer offered before they talked about the day’s good times and its bad.
“It didn’t matter if we were mad or if there was a problem, when we sit, we eat,” Rodolfo said. “At the table, we are family. Family always.”
Emma first read about breast cancer in one of her magazines, following the diagrams for a self-exam diligently. She found a lump.
Years passed and the lump grew. She gave herself more exams, examining by feel. She had a mastectomy. Then a second one.
Laudencia’s life trudged forward. He got a new haircut, entered Iowa State, joined a frat. He started drinking, which helped him shed the Asian nerd image he feared followed him like a shadow. With a bit of booze, he could talk, he could dance.
“I was the life of the party,” Laudencia said. “I was Mr. Popularity in college. I had never been like that in high school.”
He studied biology, hoping to become a doctor, but deep down he knew he “wasn’t that smart.”
Emma’s cancer spread to her blood; “leukemia,” the doctors said. Rodolfo and Harry visited her in the hospital. She’d reach out to Al, but he was too busy. “I’m not always going to be here,” she’d say.
“I ran away,” Laudencia recalled. “I was just trying to erase everything.”
But soon the call came, the one where someone says to come as fast as you can. His mom was hooked to bundles of wires, bloated, hair all gone.
He leaned down and made a promise: “I’m going to find the cure.”
His mom slipped away.
A semester later, he flunked out.
March 18, 2020
After hanging up with his accountant, Laudencia typed out a Facebook message on his phone: Free pulled pork and brisket sandwiches this Friday. “Don’t cook,” he wrote. “Spend the most precious commodity with your family and that is time.”
Laudencia and his Adel employees filled boxes in the kitchen and brought them to a staging table outside, unsure what sort of traffic they’d see. A family pulled in and Laudencia sighed in relief; all were welcome, but he really hoped to ensure kids home from school went to bed with warm bellies. Those who could tossed bills into the free-will donation jars.
As the team in the parking lot served about 400 free meals that night, waves of community members showed up curbside to buy entrees off Big Al’s regular menu. When the receipts were counted, the restaurant tallied one of its most profitable nights ever, Laudencia said.
Friends and colleagues started reaching out to help. Some donated money toward another night of free meals. Others offered to throw on some gloves and sling brisket.
“It was something for people to hang onto,” Laudencia said. “People were scared. I was scared. But we were taking something awful and turning it into something good."
"It was a hope for people," he continued. "A light at the end of the tunnel."
A few days later, Laudencia made payroll.
But his impulsive answer had spawned something else, too, something completely unexpected — the Free Meal Movement.
An addiction takes hold
By the time Ken Cloud met Laudencia in 2005, “Big Al,” as he was known then, was bartending at a local pub, the place he’d always land when he got burned out on sales.
In the about two decades since his mom died, Laudencia had fallen deeper into alcoholism. He moved to St. Louis with two DUIs under his belt and two handfuls of jobs he’d lost soon after getting them.
Laudencia owned the room, Cloud said. He was “good-time party Al”: gregarious, charismatic, always on “schmooze-control.”
And nearly every time they hung out, Laudencia managed to turn the conversation to food, Cloud said.
After bouncing around the country for sales jobs, Laudencia first landed in St. Louis to manage a T.G.I. Fridays in 1998. At the end of the day, he’d slam a pint of vodka before stopping by the meat market for a new cut to try on the Weber grill he bought in better times. He pulled out spices for rubs, the kitchen air thick with smells just like when he was little.
He’d stay alert enough to put the meat on the grill, but often passed out as it cooked, waking to the blaring fire alarm — again.
On the weekends, he bellied up to the bar. Such a good customer, the owners gave him his own key and remote control. A glass in one hand and Food Network on the tube, he’d marvel at Emeril for hours. Look at how he butterflied that! Those knife skills — he cuts and chops so carefully.
Cloud helped Laudencia get a sales job that he burned out on quickly. Then another he never got around to starting. He loaned Laudencia a car and drew up a payment plan, but Big Al disappeared without paying. “I chalked it up to a loss,” Cloud said.
Cloud had no idea that behind Laudencia’s “good-time party” façade, he was losing grip on reality.
When Laudencia’s heat was soon turned off, he told himself a blanket was all he needed anyway. The water went next, and he discreetly used the dishwashing station’s faucet to rinse. No matter when an eviction notice was plastered to his door, he told himself, he could live in his car.
And when money for real booze ran out, Laudencia bought store-brand Equate, the alcohol content just enough to calm frayed nerves.
“I was to the point that I had to drink every day, multiple times a day,” Laudencia said. “I would wake up early in the morning and I'd have the dry heaves, and the only way to stop them was to have another drink. My hands had the shakes. It was really bad.”
In Iowa, Rodolfo didn’t know Laudencia was homeless, with just two pairs of pants and a shirt to his name. Come back, he told his son when they finally connected, asking a church friend to deliver Laudencia $100 for the trip.
Laudencia filled his tank, bought a jug of vodka and headed north.
For months the then-42-year-old drank himself into a stupor. His aunt cleaned up the bottles and tended to his sicknesses. She’d tell him that Alcoholics Anonymous was the answer, but every night the cycle would start over.
Until one morning in January 2009, just after the new year.
“He came upstairs crying and saying he can’t do it anymore,” Rodolfo remembered. “So, we prayed and he finally went.”
During that first meeting, Laudencia felt some loose part of himself click back into place. His mind shifted, and his life changed. He went to bed without a drink, thinking about what the group leader had said: “Tomorrow could be the first day of the rest of his life.”
He just needed to figure out what he wanted that life to be.
April 26, 2020
Within a week of the first Friday meal, local companies around Adel inquired about sponsoring a night of the budding Free Meal Movement. Laudencia’s meat purveyor, Brewers Family Farms, pitched in. So did an insurance agent, a bank and the corner pharmacy. A local limo company offered delivery to the homebound.
Laudencia cooked up Southern-style chicken, beef and noodles, sausage and chili mac — at least 150 portions every night. Some days the meals were gone in less than 30 minutes.
About two weeks in, Laudencia heard about the difficulties truck drivers were having getting warm grub. Some truck stop restaurants were closed, and pulling a big rig around a drive-thru was impossible, so the wife of a late long-hauler, among others, donated meals to passing drivers. Laudencia’s team and volunteers set up at the Adair rest stop one weekend, and a weigh scale the next.
Anonymous donors called in orders for hospitals. Lunch for nurses at Broadlawns, 175 meals for Dallas County Hospital, 250 to Cass County Hospital, another 150 for Guthrie County Hospital. First responders came next. Laudencia donated food to the Dallas County Sheriffs and the Adel, Des Moines and Ankeny police departments
“People were just saying, ‘Feed people, feed people, feed people,’” Laudencia said.
Others were still coming in to buy off the menu, and Laudencia kept having some of the best nights of his career.
Trevor Trueblood, an Adel 10-year-old, gave his Easter money to the cause. Another young man, Griffin Ray, followed in his footsteps
“It’s always better to give than to receive, my mom and dad said,” Trevor told the Adel News. “Big Al has done so much for our community and others in the area, I just wanted to do a little something to help as well.”
More than a job
As much as Laudencia loved food when he was deep in the throes of addiction, he loved it even more after he got sober in 2009.
Clear-headed, Laudencia could start to plot a path for himself in the food industry, said Chris Coulter, a fellow server at Biaggi’s, the West Des Moines Italian restaurant where they both worked.
“Even as a server, he had that tenacity to be a success,” Coulter said. “Every night through hard work and effort, Al would have the highest tips percentage, no doubt.”
Laudencia didn’t wear his struggles on his sleeves, but Coulter knew he mentored some younger employees dealing with their own demons.
“He didn’t just talk the talk,” Coulter said, “he walked the walk.”
On breaks, Laudencia would trade grill tips with Coulter, who owned a smoker and small catering company. When Coulter moved a few months later, he wanted to sell the supplies to someone who would care about them, he said. Laudencia was the obvious choice.
Laudencia became a weekend warrior, cooking up a storm. He’d bring in new concoctions for the Biaggi’s chefs to taste. Never forget the acid, said one. Cook your brisket a little longer for more char, said another. People eat with their eyes, you know.
Laudencia set to drumming up business like he had in his old sales days, door to door. He’d stake out an office building, find the person in charge of lunch orders and offer them a fresh sandwich. Here are some extras, he’d say, take them home to your family.
“You don't have to do the dishes tonight,” Laudencia remembers pitching. “Just put that in the oven, 250 degrees, a couple hours. Dinner’s on me.”
Orders rolled in, and Laudencia reinvested every cent. In less than a decade, he was a restaurateur with dozens of employees — a growth that came with a whole new set of responsibilities.
Food will always be his passion, but he’s come to love making an impact on his employees' lives. He tries to let them know how important they are to Big Al’s future; everyone from the dishwasher up, he says.
Laudencia knows he’s tough, too, but he turns mistakes into learning opportunities, a lesson on how to get better, he says.
“This is how these single moms are putting food on their plates, putting a roof over their head. That's important,” he said. “This is more than just a job now. It's now a way for them to have a livelihood.”
Success is important, he tells me. But having a table full of friends, that’s what really makes one rich.
May 4, 2020
Before opening his Adel location, Laudencia had a Bible verse painted in looping script on the joint’s chalkboard wall. In the seven-line story, two fishes and five loaves of bread fed 5,000 people on the miracle of faith alone.
More than six weeks into the Free Meal Movement, he couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to his own situation. From a weekend’s worth of meat had sprung thousands of meals — 7,026 to be specific.
When the movement finally ended just before Memorial Day, Big Al and his team had cooked, packaged and served about 9,700 meals.
And he made payroll every week.
“It’s amazing to see what happened during that time,” Laudencia said. “Restaurants had to close down, a lot of places had to close down, people were dying, and yet there were people who were willing to use what they had to try to take care of others.
“I think we still need to do that,” he added.
Soon after the Free Meal Movement ended, Cloud took a trip from St. Louis to the Badlands. As he made plans, Cloud knew he would make at least one stop in Iowa: Big Al’s.
“There are people who if they took my car and ghosted, I’d be like, ‘Forget you, man,’” Cloud said. “But it was never going to be that with Al.”
For the first time in more than a decade, Cloud and Laudencia shared a meal, and the trespasses of the past were quickly forgiven.
“He’s that friend that you haven’t seen in a long time, but it’s like no time has passed. You’re right back where you were,” Cloud said. “It’s just easy with Al.”
When you’ve been through some of life’s hardest trials, Laudencia says, you come to know the true power of gratitude. For his part, it’s enough to be thankful for another day, for the sun to rise and set and for him to have been there.
Laudencia still chases the feeling he had when he cooked at the hem of his mom’s apron. He still reminds himself that the best food is served with a side of spirit and that strangers become friends if you let them pull up a chair and break bread.
He holds her close in the donations he makes for breast cancer research, the dinners he hosts for survivors and the logo he fashioned in bright pink, a way to remember the promise he made her all those years ago.
He’s not a doctor, but he’s finding the cure in the way he can — small kindnesses and a whole lot of barbecue.