Pizza, key to cheer up healthcare workers

Michael Ceraso | July 13, 2020

Pizza, key to cheer up healthcare workers

This is a story about a group of people coming together to fight the battles that the government cannot. About a community of people who used their ideas, time and resources to give back. 

About creative and resilient residents delivering 1,500 pizzas to hospital workers fighting an invisible enemy on their turf. 

Don’t call them ordinary.

Susan and Gordon DesCombes met 46 years ago in the halls of La Puerta Junior High, the now closed second middle school here in Claremont. 

They locked eyes, fell in love, and a decade later exchanged wedding vows. They took flight from Claremont and raised a family of three before returning to the City of Trees in 2013. The DesCombes’ neighbor is Laura Verbal. 

Ms. Verbal is the daughter of Mike and Sue Verbal, owners of Pizza N’ Such, a favorite neighborhood hangout on Second and Yale since 1979. Patrons include couples, families celebrating their kids’ triumphs, sports lovers and teens looking to socialize and eat homemade pizza. 

Whether Ms. Verbal likes it or not, she is now the glue that keeps the family business going. Like most small business owners, for the past month, she has had to think of more creative ways to keep her family’s business afloat amid the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Five years ago, Amber Brenneisen walked in wide-eyed to her new job as a public relations and community outreach manager at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center. Part of her job is to give the public a backstage pass to see the personalities and experiences from the doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians and food service staff who run the hospital. 

Mr. DesCombes serves on the Pomona Valley Hospital Foundation board—an organization established in 1979 to help fund development programs for improving healthcare services. 

On their daily walk a few weeks ago, the DesCombes talked about some of the compelling stories they had been reading about on the hospital’s Facebook page. This resulted in Mr. and Ms. DesCombes thinking about what they could do to show support for the hospital’s 1,500 health care workers. 

They were also worried about the economic downturn in Claremont, especially the Village. “We have friends there,” Mr. DesCombes. 

An idea struck that could help the hospital staff and their friend Laura’s family business.

The DesCombes approached Ms. Verbal with their plan—Pizza N’ Such would make 1,500 pizzas over a two-week period to be delivered to the Pomona Valley Hospital staff. Foundation management worked with the DeCombes to fund the program, ensuring exhausted frontline workers have dinner to take home to their families.

“We’re not on our feet for 10 hours a day, cleaning bathrooms, keeping patients alive, while living with the fear factor,” Mr. DesCombes said. “They have to flip a switch and go home and feed their families.” 

“Or even if it’s yourself; you’re going home alone, and you’re exhausted and not going to prepare a meal,” Ms. DesCombes added.  

But the gesture provides more than just dinner after a long day.

“These meals really bring hope to the workers at our hospital and to their families,” Ms. Brenneisen. 

The COVID-19 lockdown has hurt businesses everywhere, leading restaurants like Pizza N’ Such to lay off workers. This order has created a financial boost for the restaurant, and Ms. Verbal was happy to improvise to make sure the pizzas got out the door on time. 

“I needed to train the dining room staff to help to roll the dough, make our sauce and grate cheese for 1,500 pizzas,” Ms. Verbal said. 

The process included a makeshift assembly line in the restaurant’s kitchen with four people individually tasked to stretch the dough, spread the sauce, sprinkle the cheese and place the toppings on the pie. 

“We were able to give more hours to our staff because we were able to spread the work out,” she said. 

A group of volunteers hauled 300 pizzas to the hospital in their cars, trucks and vans. They were greeted by hospital staff who coordinated efforts to ensure deliveries were aligned with hospital workers as they clocked out to head home.

“Our goal is to bring hope to the community by sharing these stories on social media,” Ms. Brenneisen said on behalf of PVHMC. “We understand the role of a hospital is to save lives, but we also want to let the community know we are here and that we will get through this together.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Verbal, the DeCombes, and a host of volunteers greeted hospital workers who formed a single file line in the hospital cafeteria to pick up their pizzas as they headed out the door. Their smiles visibly lifted their face masks above their cheeks. 

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.