Rita LaCroix, owner of Rita’s House of Pizza, stands in the order window Tuesday with a picture of her son, Zack, at the family’s restaurant in Winslow. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Rita Lacroix says it’s kind of hard for her to explain how she feels when she cooks food for people, particularly during a pandemic that has stopped everyone in their tracks.

She views her joy of cooking as a gift because it can comfort people or make their day brighter.

“I tell my staff, cooking — whether it’s for a wedding or funeral — people are very happy to see you and you’re providing them with a service,” she said. “They don’t have to worry about it, and I think that satisfies me.”

Lacroix, 49, owns both Rita’s House of Pizza in Winslow and Rita’s Catering in Waterville. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March, she started to put her talents to work in a big way after having to lay off her staff and close her catering business because all her events were canceled.

She and her son, Zacharias “Zack” Menoudarakos, an 18-year-old Waterville Senior High School senior, opened a walk-up window at her pizza house on Bay Street in Winslow and offered meals for low cost or no cost to those in need.

“We had a bunch of inventory in freezers and canned goods for catering,” LaCroix recalled Monday. “We had little business, so I said the least I can do is try to feed people and not sit on the inventory and throw it away.”

They started feeding police, her tenants, and people she knew who were struggling. Her son delivered meals to people who could not get out.

“I just started out making meals for  low cost or no cost,” LaCroix said. “Right in the beginning, it was chaotic for people who were running out of toilet paper, so we started handing out toilet paper to people when they needed it and using up what we had.”

Unexpectedly, something good happened. Business started picking up as more and more people got familiar with her cooking. She was able to hire her staff back. They still take turns, driving what they call “The Loop” to deliver meals to customers, many of whom don’t have the means to pay, so the food is free. The drivers didn’t even have the names of those people — just their addresses.

LaCroix remembers one woman with four children who called and was crying. LaCroix delivered the meals herself.

“It broke my heart that she was in that position,” she said.

Customers are calling ahead and picking up meals for themselves or their elderly parents. LaCroix features a special every day such as American chop suey; macaroni and cheese; chicken Alfredo; shepherd’s pie; buffalo chicken mac and cheese; Santa Fe chicken with Spanish rice; ham and noodle casserole; and fish, clam or seafood chowder on Fridays.

“We’ve done lots of chicken noodle soup, creamy turkey and rice soup, and turkey pie,” she said. “Turkey pie is a big seller.”

LaCroix got creative with lots of pancake mix she had on hand because a pancake breakfast she was to cater got canceled.

“I said, ‘Let’s make deep-fried Oreos,'” she said. “We sell them for $6 a dozen. The week before last, we made over 600.”

Customers call ahead for the cookies and she starts deep frying them at 2:10 p.m. on Saturdays. Between 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. that day, they pick up the cookies, which are sprinkled with powdered sugar.

“We’ve been doing between 25 and 40 dozen cookies in an hour on Saturday,” LaCroix said. “They’re easy and they’re yummy and I thought, oh, let’s just try this.”

As food banks started opening up for people during the pandemic and those who lost their jobs started receiving unemployment checks and more food stamps, LaCroix got fewer requests for free or low cost meals.

“It was definitely a community effort — people stepped up in so many different ways,” she said.

She plans to continue helping those in need until about June 1, after which she will consider opening up her dining room in Winslow again.

“I just don’t want to open it prematurely,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re front of the line. We’re in the trenches, so to speak, and I can’t afford to get sick. I’d feel horrible if my staff got sick. We’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves, short of closing. People are so appreciative. They say, ‘Thank you for being here. Thank you for being open.'”

I asked LaCroix, who seems to have unlimited energy, if she ever gets tired. My question drew an immediate laugh.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “I was exhausted last week. Even my voice was cracking and everyone was like, ‘You need to go home.’ So, I took some time this weekend, half of Saturday and all day Sunday, and I feel refreshed.”

If it’s true that the more you give, the more you get, then LaCroix surely fits the mold. I have to think that her compassion, coupled with ingenuity, imagination and an optimistic nature, keeps her in good stead when the going gets rough.

Her fortitude during this pandemic is probably best summed up by something she said, off-hand, during our interview.

“I was talking to one of my vendors and he said, ‘I knew you would go down fighting — I knew you wouldn’t go down easily,'” she recalled.

And then she laughed her inimitable laugh.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 32 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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