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Audio: Dinner and Debate at Fremont’s Essanay Café

7 October 2008 No Comment

Radio and print stories by Linsay Rousseau Burnett

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In the heart of Fremont’s historic Niles District, the Essanay Café is a go-to place for fine dining and good wine. But on the first Tuesday of each month, the café swaps out its china with paper plates, for what owner Bruce Cates has themed, the “Recession Dinner.”

Cates said that the idea for the dinner came about when he was talking to some friends about how the economic crisis is affecting their spending habits. While Cates said he prides himself in the high quality food and atmosphere at the café, the slowing economy was putting a strain on customer’s discretionary income making them less likely to come in. He said the “Recession Dinner” was a way for him to give back to the community.

“Basically it’s just to offer good quality, fresh, home cooking style food, good comfort food, at a reasonable price. Basically a break-even price, should I get enough people in here toe warrant the thing,” said Cates. He then chucked and said he would be subsidizing October’s meal because attendance was lower than usual.

October’s dinner also fell on the same day as the second presidential debate between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. As with the two previous debates, the café was a place for local residents to gather, eat and watch.

During the previous vice-presidential debate, Cates said the turnout was high. “I had boo hiss signs made up to keep people civil, but nobody even used them. Everybody was completely quiet like they are tonight,” he said.

Cates did not make up any signs for the debate on October 8th, and people stared at the large projector screen in silence, with the occasional snicker or sigh.

Local artist Ed Frakes said he felt the debate did not address anything new. “It seemed like a rerun. It doesn’t seem to have changed from the last debate,” he said.

There were others, such as Lydia Azvedo, who said the debate was not boring at all. Azvedo remembers a time before reruns and before television. She had already voted in four presidential elections when the first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy was aired.

Azvedo said that the Obama McCain debate was more like a reality television show. “I kind of wish that McCain had lost his cool because I was waiting for him to blow his stack,” said Azvedo.

Beyond just televised theatrics, several diners at the Essanay Café said that the problems in the U.S. are a rerun of the past and they are worried about the future.

Cates, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said the country needs to shift away from a policy of aggression towards one of mediation. He said that the mentality of being either “with us or against us” has never helped anybody and has only made things worse.

Cates compared these divisive tactics to schoolyard fights: “I remember as a kid, kids would get in a fight and they’d draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Cross that line and I’ll knock your head off.’ Instead of going up and saying, ‘What’s going on here? What can’t we work this out?’”

While the war in Iraq has been compared to the one in Vietnam, Azvedo looked back even further. She has lived through several wars in her 79 years. As a child, Azvedo said her father would tell her stories about his time in the Marines and sailing around the world as part of the “Great White Fleet,” which was supposed to end all wars.

“Before, we didn’t have things like atom bombs. So I’m getting worried,” said Azvedo, “And the thing they’re talking about – 10 years – A war that has no end. I mean for god sakes. That’s what’s bothering me.”

Cates said he believes that the war in Iraq that is the primary cause of the current economic crisis that has him struggling to stay in business. Cates said that he is looking at backup plans, should he be unable to keep the restaurant open, but he is not willing to give up. “I put a lot of money, a lot of effort and heart into this place,” he said.

Despite his economic hardships, Cates said he will continue to provide the “Recession Dinners” during these difficult times, but is changing the name to the “Depression Dinner.”

He said that this election is an important turning point for the nation and he is trying to stay positive: “I always have hope that common sense will prevail. Who knows though?”

Visit the Essanay Cafe website: www.essanaycafe.com

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