The day before the Almeda fire melted their Phoenix, Oregon, home and food truck beyond recognition, Lichen Richardson and Phoenix Sigalove were relaxing at Lake of the Woods about 45 minutes away. Armed with floaties, towels, and plenty of snacks, they enjoyed the lake views and watched their kids jump off their rented pontoon boat "10,000 times," Richardson jokes. They wanted to celebrate one last day of summer before the kids were due on Zoom calls for their first day of distance learning on September 8.
The founders also wanted to enjoy their first real vacation after two breakneck years running their food truck in nearby Ashland and Medford. Parked at weddings, downtown food truck hubs, and wineries, Richardson and Sigalove's Daddy Ramen served dishes like Roasted Chicken Miso Ramen and BBQ Brisket Wontons, and pulled in about $100,000 in sales in 2019. Between the two of them, Richardson and Sigalove have four children--ages 7 to 14--from previous marriages, so they frequently balanced evening grocery runs and all-night ramen broth brewing sessions with karate class and making school lunches. But they found the work fulfilling, Sigalove says. And the pandemic had been good for the business: Daddy Ramen saw about a 20 percent bump in sales and finally started generating a profit.
After a successful first day of remote classes, the family checked into a hotel, mostly to get away from the smoke near their home. From what they could tell, the fire itself was still two towns away across a highway and their home was in no immediate danger. But things changed quickly. The next day, a neighbor who was last to evacuate sent them videos of their house, food truck, and cars--all reduced to rubble and blackened metal.
"Nothing in those pictures or those videos are recognizable as anything that was once my home, once my business, once my purpose in life," Richardson says.
Their plight hasn't gone unnoticed. In the wake of the fire, friends and fans of Daddy Ramen are crowdfunding a campaign to help Sigalove and Richardson get back to doing the work they loved: Feeding people. The campaign has raised $38,200 as of September 23, and while it won't replace everything, it's a start.
Bowls With a Bigger Purpose.
Richardson and Sigalove met in 2015 through a mutual friend and bonded over a love of cooking. In particular, they loved the intricacy of creating ramen; a process that can take up to 18 hours. After many all-night cooking experimentation sessions, Richardson and Sigalove pulled together enough money from family and friends to buy a custom food truck with wood paneling on the outside and a Ford F-250 pickup truck to pull it--$75,000 all told.
Daddy Ramen served its first bowl in May 2018. From day one, the couple aspired to feed anyone who was hungry, not just paying customers. They operated a "pay it forward" system where customers could buy a bowl of ramen for someone in need, paying $8 per bowl instead of the usual $13. For those orders, Richardson and Sigalove would place a brightly colored coaster in the window to represent a free meal for anyone who needed one. But even when the pay-it-forward account was empty, "We never turned away somebody in need," Richardson says.
Over the years, they gave away 2,000 meals, Sigalove estimates. One question they got all the time: "People would say to us, how do you know that they need it?" he says. While opening the truck early in the morning in downtown Medford, Sigalove recalls how people would come out of the nearby tree line carrying sleeping bags, shivering from sleeping outside, and line up for hot bowls of ramen. "We knew, very early on, we were onto something," he says. "Quickly, we became known as a place where anybody could get a meal, no questions asked."
They say it never occurred to them to stop giving away free food even when they were straining to pay for basic expenses. In the slower winter months in 2019, with fewer events and no farmer's markets, Richardson says they forwent purchasing things like toothpaste so they could make rent and keep their children comfortable. However, the giving program and word of mouth it generated on social media helped drive customers to the truck, especially during the pandemic, Sigalove says. During that time, when the lines were longer, he estimates they gave away as many as 40 meals in a day's shift.
The Campaign to Rebuild.
Twelve hours after discovering that the Almeda fire consumed the couple's food truck and their home, Richardson and Sigalove's friend Lola Danforth started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the couple. While she set the initial goal at $8,000 to help the family get back on its feet, the donations kept coming in. So Danforth expanded the mission to include restarting Daddy Ramen and upped the goal to $40,000.
Friends and family contributed, but Richardson says they don't know many of the donors, such as Elizabeth Smith, who donated $750 last week. "We feel fortunate to be able to support them at this wretched time, knowing that if the situation were reversed, they'd have our backs," Smith posted on the campaign's website.
"It's more money than we've ever had in our bank account or even close," Sigalove says. Still, they need to find a new home to rent, replace everything they owned, and buy a new truck. The commercial kitchen appliances required in the truck alone cost upwards of $15,000.
For the moment, they're staying temporarily at a friend's vacation home in Ashland, and spending a fair amount of their time on the phone with insurance companies. The founders say they don't expect coverage for anything in their home; their request to add renter's insurance six days before the fire didn't go into effect in time. They say they're hopeful they will recoup at least some of their investment on the food truck.
In the meantime, the couple has been donating to other GoFundMe campaigns related to the fires. They aim to find a commercial kitchen in the coming days so they can cook with Rouge Food Unites, a program to deliver meals to people displaced by the fires and give jobs to restaurant workers.
Sigalove's grandfather's watch was one of the few items they managed to salvage from the fire. Richardson lamented on her Facebook page the other things they won't get back: her first fake ID, her great-grandmother's jade earrings, and the cork from the bottle of champagne they popped on the food truck's first day of service. Still, both say they're grateful to still have intact the most important thing: their family. Neither has lost the entrepreneurial spirit and drive to give to others, despite all of the challenges ahead.
"We will do anything in our power to be back as soon as possible to help and serve this community," Richardson says. "I don't know what it takes or where it comes from, I can't tell you exactly how it happens, but I have no doubt that we will be able to do that again."