The music is playing loudly again after Salley and his staff, thanks in large part to the generosity of a regular customer, endured a nearly two-month shutdown of regular service because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Salley opened his cafe six years ago in Naples, Fla., a few blocks from the beach, and he has done well manning the grill for made-to-order breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. But when the coronavirus forced everybody to stay at home — at the height of the city’s winter tourism season — mom-and-pop places such as Bill’s felt the impact of the closures more than larger businesses.
“Just when I thought I was okay,” Salley said, “the covid thing could’ve taken me down."
The customer, who spoke to The Washington Post about this good deed and others on the condition that he remain anonymous, gave Salley $42,000 for the cafe to provide 100 breakfast sandwiches to hospital workers five days a week for two months.
Without serving up the daily orders, Bill’s Cafe would have been closed from March 20 until May 6, when the state began permitting dine-in service again. Salley doesn’t know if his niche cafe, with posters of Indian motorcycles and Rolling Stones vinyl records covering the walls, would have survived.
“Probably not,” Salley said. “It would’ve been tough to make it.”
And the man who donated to Bill’s didn’t just stop there.
He grew up in Chicago and soaked in small lessons of giving back by watching his mother practice her runway turns at home before she volunteered to model in fundraising shows to benefit hospital charities. During the early part of his career in the steel industry, he watched his sister become a nurse in the Air Force and later volunteer for Team Rubicon, which places veterans around the world to serve in areas affected by disasters.
Since he and his wife have retired to Naples — he later joined her in the investment business, where she had founded a global hedge fund that grew to more than $40 billion in assets — they have remained loyal to their favorite hangouts. Knowing those places would need financial help during the pandemic, he said he and his wife wrote checks totaling more than six figures to local restaurants and food pantries and to the hourly employees staffed at their golf and beach clubs.
“Those are the people we felt like were being hurt the most,” he said. “We did what we could do for as many people as we could help."
The couple donated $10,000 to the Community Foundation of Collier County, another $10,000 to a local meal fund that created jobs and food for the hungry in Naples and $5,000 to a food bank in Pittsburgh. And they spread wealth to their most-loved restaurants.
They have been devoted to Molto, where they ordered a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and a spicy diavola pizza on their first visit four years ago, and to La Pescheria, the seafood restaurant owned by the same family that makes them feel transported to the kitchen of an Italian grandmother. While grabbing takeout early in the shutdown, the man purchased $5,000 in gift cards to split between the restaurants. He has not used them, instead asking the restaurants to give them to other customers.
“He called at the very beginning … asking us if everything was okay with us and if [he and his wife] can help,” owner Francesca Neri said. “He’s very, very generous.”
On the last day that dine-in service was allowed before the shutdown, the man also pulled Salley to the side.
He ate at Bill’s about three times a week, and he knew he would miss dining in for his two scrambled eggs, two strips of bacon and two slices of whole wheat toast with a side of hash browns. He also worried about Salley and wanted to pitch in, but to do so from the shadows.
“‘Hey, Bill,' ” he said to Salley after devouring his last “2-2-2” in March. “I know two weeks is going to hurt you.”
So he gave Salley two envelopes. One contained $1,000 for Salley’s employees and the other $1,000 for Salley to help pay rent. Days later, the man came up with another idea that would benefit Salley and the people who worked across the street from the cafe at NCH Baker Hospital.
“We’ve got all these people at NCH on the front line who are putting their lives on the line,” the man said. “We knew that Bill would probably go out of business for what they were planning for the next few weeks, and so I went to him and asked if he would be interested in doing 100 breakfast sandwiches a day to the staff over at NCH, and we would do that Monday through Friday in the month of April.”
That month, the man cut two checks of $10,000 each so that every day Salley would get to his grill at 6 a.m. and begin the preparation of toasting 180 pieces of bread. The white and whole wheat combinations had a variation of bacon, egg, pepper Jack cheese, ham or sausage patties. There were also sandwiches with bagels and English muffins, and 20 garlic herb wraps for healthier options.
Salley, who said he received more than 100 thank-you notes from hospital staffers, said the breakfast orders were such a hit that the anonymous donor told him to keep it going in May, and he wrote two more checks for an additional $20,000.
This past Sunday, Bill’s Cafe was fully back in business. The rock-and-roll was blasting, and from behind the counter Salley was belting hellos to everyone who walked through the doors. The donor came for breakfast but switched up his usual meal: He ordered bacon and eggs on a toasted bagel.
About eight other customers were dining, too. None of them knew he was the one who helped save Bill’s Cafe.
“I don’t look at my wife and I as anything special. We were just in a position to do something, and we felt we could do it and felt good doing it, too,” he said. “If nothing else, this has brought to our attention all the things that we take for granted sometimes and that we probably shouldn’t. We’re always now very grateful when we go out. Always.”
Read more about Extraordinary People: