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JR at the Old Packinghouse Cafe with my grand-nephews in happier times.

JR’s Old Packinghouse Cafe was always a great place for a juicy burger and pass-the-hat bluegrass music. The Cuban sandwich was famous, and Auntie’s authentic Cuban recipes reigned in the tiny kitchen. Everything  was made fresh, with most produce coming from Detweiler’s farm stand right next door. On any given day, you'd see JR making his way back to the restaurant with his red wagon filled with fresh lettuce and big, ripe tomatoes.

You could ride your bike there, drive your big-wheel truck or cruise up in your Jaguar. From food critics to neighbors to restaurant owners, or just someone in need of a cold beer after a long day, everyone could hang out at the Old Packinghouse Cafe, all on equal ground.

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Then, earlier this week, there was a fire--a huge, six-alarm fire in the warehouse next to the restaurant. Although the Old Packinghouse Cafe is still standing, the damage is significant--and of course, it's beyond emotional for JR, his loyal staff and his patrons. 

After the fire, I drove by the Packinghouse. I insisted that JR take a break and go have a good lunch with some air conditioning. While we ate, his phone rang non-stop--all calls from people asking how they could help. JR took each call with dignity and thanks. “I am so humbled, Judi," he said, with a gleam in his eyes. "I just worry about my staff and how everyone will get by each day."

While we give JR a moment to figure out his next steps, and while his friends begin fundraising for his business, which did not have insurance, there are several ways to help.

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Post your favorite memories and photos on JR’s Facebook page. Now is the time to let him know how important he is to this community. His family has been doing business in Sarasota for over 30 years. Let’s pay it forward.

Drive by the Packinghouse and drop off a big tip, cold drinks and hugs. The staff is outside waving to cars with a tip can. Let’s do this big, Sarasota. Let’s show these hard working people who are standing and smiling in the sun that we are there for them. Restaurants--please consider temporary hires and please think about providing family meals for however long it might take for them to get back to a semi-normal state.

Donate at the GoFundMe page that friends have set up. JR is a proud man, and this took a heck of a lot of convincing.

Help organize a fundraiser. Musicians, unite--we can all help! Someone just needs to step up and get the ball rolling.

For all those great times, enormous burgers, rice puddings and slices of peanut butter pie, for the times JR gave your business a boost or his numerous charity donations (it should be noted that he donated all the food that was savable after the fire to local nonprofits), let’s show JR and the Packinghouse team how important they are to us.

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