PROFILE: Feed the people
Published 2:30 pm Thursday, March 17, 2016
By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor
Will Cholewinski glanced toward the restaurant’s front door, pausing a conversation with one of his customers as a smile spread across his face.
“Hey man, I’ll be right there. I’ve got to clean off a few tables real quick,” Cholewinski, a man who never seems to run out of energy or friendliness, said before shaking the customer’s hand and rushing to retrieve a rag to help clean up after the lunch rush.
It had been eight days since Cholewinski celebrated the grand opening of his newest restaurant venture in Alabaster: Sun and C’s Seafood Spot on U.S. 31 slightly north of Shelby Baptist Medical Center.
As with his other local ventures, the restaurant’s business was already booming, and had gained a loyal following of customers.
After wiping down the tables, Cholewinski – the restaurant’s phone receiver in tow – took a seat at a table near the business’s front door as he prepared to explain his life up to that point. Every person who walked through the door for the next hour greeted Cholewinski with a personal story or a glowing review of the new restaurant.
Over the past few years, Cholewinski and his family have built a reputation throughout Shelby County through their Chubb’s Grub Station restaurants in Alabaster and Chelsea and Sun and C’s in Alabaster. Community support for those restaurants has been strong, and the family is not shy about returning the favor by making it a mission to always give back to those who are struggling to get by.
For Cholewinski, supporting folks in need comes naturally – Not only because he was raised in a family of givers, but also because he has experienced firsthand what it’s like to rely on the generosity of others.
Putting others first
Cholewinski was born on Nov. 18, 1975, in Wintersville, Ohio, which is about 40 minutes west of Pittsburgh. From the day he was born, Cholewinski has been raised with a servant’s heart – Something he attributes to the example set for him by his parents.
The most profound of these examples came early in Cholewinski’s life when his father, despite his best efforts, was unable to earn enough to make ends meet for the family.
“There was a nice part of our lives where dad did all he could, but it just wasn’t enough to make ends meet,” Cholewinski said matter-of-factly. “So he went to the food bank, and we were on food stamps for a while.
“Never in a million years did he think he would be the family using those services,” Cholewinski said. “It was a very humbling experience to watch him humble himself and say ‘OK, my family comes above my pride.’”
Living with the support of government assistance was somewhat of a sudden change for a family who, while not extremely wealthy, had never dealt with such hardships.
“We weren’t rich by any means, but dad had a really good job,” Cholewinski said of his father, who passed away in 2011. “He started his own business, and it went really well for a while. He did a wrong business deal, and everything went downhill from there. We lost everything, basically, except our house.”
While it was a potentially traumatic event for young Cholewinski, he and his family members credit the experience with shaping the future of their lives.
“He understands the trials that some people are going through because we have been through them,” Cholewinski’s mother, Rose, said.
But even in the midst of the most challenging time in their lives, the Cholewinskis still put others before themselves. After using their fist batch of food stamps, the family realized they had more than they truly needed.
“We had so many food stamps that we actually were able to supply them to three other people,” Rose Cholewinski said. “I think that made him understand that you give what you have. Even if it’s not a lot, you share it.”
Throughout the hardships, Will and his family were regular fixtures at their local charities. As a child, it was sometimes difficult for him to comprehend the life lessons he was developing.
“My old man played such a big role in developing that servant’s heart. A lot of times he took me – Or, I guess I should say drug me kicking and screaming – to help put together Christmas toy baskets for other kids,” Will said with a muffled laugh. “I saw all these toys there and I would say ‘You mean I have to give all of these away to other kids?’ I thought I was getting the short end of the stick, but I didn’t know that I was learning a good lesson.”
Will still remembers the day his father told the family the hardest days were behind them.
“I will not forget the look on my dad’s face the day he realized we were going to be OK,” Will said. “That had just as much impact, if not more, than when he told us we were going to have to go on food stamps.”
The family transitioned off of government assistance, and moved from Ohio to Alabama in 1986. After landing in Eastaboga, the Cholewinskis moved to Center Point, then to Inverness, Irondale and eventually to Alabaster.
Although Will is decades removed from the hardships his family faced when he was a child, the impact of the experience is still with him to this day. As he grew older, Will decided to give back the best way he knew how.
At the age of 8, Will became interested in cooking after he received an Easy Bake Oven as a gift from one of his cousins. Because his father had six brothers and sisters, Will’s house often served as a congregation area for the entire family.
“My family was always cooking. My mom would sit me up on the counter and let me throw ingredients in the bowl, and I learned a lot from that,” Will said. “The first thing my dad taught me to cook was over-easy eggs.”
Using his Easy Bake Oven, Will and his friends created a neighborhood business selling small cakes to their neighbors: 15 cents for a plain cake and 25 cents for a cake with icing, his mother said.
It was a modest beginning for a man who has had a hand in opening and running multiple successful restaurants over the past several years. But Will’s success has never come without a charitable aspect.
“Somewhere, when I was a child, God told me feeding the people would be my job,” he said. “Going through those hard times when I was younger has given me so much perspective now. I tried so long to not be like my dad, and now I can’t wait to get a little older to be just like him.”
When Will opened the first Chubb’s Grub Station in Alabaster in 2013, he advertised his “Feed the People” program just as heavily as he did the restaurant’s menu items.
Through the program, Chubb’s and Sun and C’s customers who bring two non-perishable food items to the restaurant receive a free drink with their meals. At the end of each month, Will matches customers’ donations with perishable food items from the restaurant and donates them to local charities.
Chief among the recipients is the Alabaster-based Manna Ministries.
“He just called me out of the blue one day. I didn’t know who he was,” said Manna Ministries Director Phillis Harbin. “He told me he had opened Chubb’s, he gave me his testimony and he asked me how he could help.”
Each Saturday, Manna Ministries opens its doors to those in need and provides them with perishable and non-perishable good and grocery items. The Feed the People program has provided significant support to Manna.
“Once or twice a month, we will receive a full cart of groceries from him,” Harbin said. “He even wanted to feed the volunteers every Saturday, and he would personally show up with food from the restaurant from them. He’s just an awesome guy, and he really goes on his word.”
Will said the Feed the People program has received much support from the community.
“Numerous times, I’ve had young kids come in with boxes of food they have taken it upon themselves to go door-to-door to collect,” he said, the “Chubb’s” and “Feed the People” tattoos lining the inside of his right arm. “Everyone knows our primary goal is to give back.”
Will’s relationship with Manna has grown, and he is now on the charity’s board of directors.
His charitable heart – Not to mention his restaurants’ delicious offerings – has cemented Will’s status in his new hometown, which he views as one of the greatest blessings in his life.
“The more I give to the community, the more the community gives back,” Will said. “This city has been fantastic to me. I’m going to cry if I think about it too much. They make me want to serve them.
“This is the first place since we left Ohio that I have no hesitation about saying ‘This is my home,’” he said.