I sat down with Pete Blohme (aka Panini Pete) at Sunset Pointe at Fly Creek Marina, one of his four eating establishments, to talk about his involvement in the organization called the Messlords. Our conversation took place in a room that is set apart from the main part of the restaurant and is dedicated to service men and women. The walls are filled with pictures, tributes, and memories. What evolved from that conversation was this amazing glimpse into the spirit of giving and the gifts that giving brings.
The Messlords is a group of celebrity chefs recruited by Karen Fritz with Navy Entertainment – Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) division, that goes to U.S. Navy bases all over the world and helps the guys in the galleys cook what Pete calls “killer food” for military personnel. Pete says the chefs not only cook, they show the culinary specialists and galley officers how they can creatively use the food items they have – some “tricks of the trade,” if you will.
That’s the serious part. The other part of the Messlords involves just “messing around.” While the guys and gals are eating the amazing food, the chefs hang out with them, thanking them for their service and talking to them about whatever it is they want to talk about. “It’s a chance for some distraction, fun, and entertainment,” says Pete.
He continues: “I’m struck by how much the service folks miss while they’re on duty – things we take for granted! Things like graduations, births, funerals, anniversaries, going to your sister’s house and having dinner – just normal, everyday stuff.”
For Pete, the Messlords is rewarding and humbling – and this just may be an understatement.
“I’m driven to tears every time,” he acknowledges. “The first thing you see, is how young these guys and gals are. You can see your kids’ faces in their faces. And the best of it,” Pete goes on to say, “is that you see this bigger purpose all these kids have. On the deck of the ship there’ll be a guy that, five years ago his dad wouldn’t even lend him the car keys, but now he’s launching $35 million jets! If he messes up, people die! These kids are taking responsibility for things. Whatever reasons they had for joining the service, they’re out there doing the hard work now. You see a level of confidence; you see a level of responsibility – again, it’s just humbling.”
Pete says he and the other Messlords chefs have become as close as brothers after touring together. At one time, the “Core Four” were him, Mike (Bossman) Hardin, Jeff (Stretch) Rumaner, and Rich (Gorilla) Bacchi. Hardin, of the iconic San Diego burger restaurant Hodad’s, passed away unexpectedly in 2015. When Pete spoke about that loss, it was easy to see how much it still affects him. The connection they had was deep and powerful. Bossman was a mentor for Pete – one he misses very much.
His energy is upbeat, informal, and engaging. He was excited to talk about his buddies and the things he learned while he served with the Messlords, but it wasn’t long before I figured out that Pete’s stories aren’t about what he DOES, they are about WHO HE IS.
Participating in the Messlords has changed Pete. Profoundly. He starts telling me stories about people in his life, stories that were close to home, stories that speak to the essence of who Pete is. All the stories involved this cool circle of giving and receiving, and this sense of connection and meaning. At one point, he laughs and says, “Geez, I’m not really a deep-thinking kind of guy, but all this stuff just hits me real deep.”
Here’s an example: Years ago, when Panini Pete’s (the popular breakfast, burger and panini restaurant in the French Quarter of downtown Fairhope) was still fairly new, Pete met a young man named John Stewart. Pete says John would come around Panini Pete’s and just wander around. Sometimes Pete’s sister would give him a soda or something. John seemed aimless and bored. He seemed to walk all over town, a bit lost, just to have something to do. Pete also noticed that John seemed to lack the usual social skills.
Eventually, Pete discovered that John was in Special Education at Fairhope High School. He lived with his dad, who was a Vietnam veteran and a double amputee, and his mom, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was also significantly mentally challenged.
Pete was moved. Over time, Pete and John struck up a friendship. John began helping out around Panini Pete’s. And Pete began helping John, too. In small ways — he bought John a shaving kit, taught him how to shave and how to take care of himself. And in larger ways — he bought John a sturdy three-wheeled bike so he could get around more easily. (And “get around” he does. Seeing John on his bike is an iconic piece of downtown Fairhope these days.) Over time, John, now nicknamed “The Sheriff,” became part of the Panini Pete’s family.
“He works at Panini Pete’s and will for his whole life, if he wants to. John has found a way to contribute and be successful in his own right. Like those amazing young people the Messlords cook for, John keeps me humble,” says Pete.
John’s dad died a few years ago, and he lost his mom last year. The house where John lived needed a lot of work. It had not been tended to or maintained for years and years. Pete and the “work family” went to John’s house, rolled up their shirt sleeves and did some major cleanup and renovation. Now, with a full-time job — Pete put John on the payroll when he graduated from high school at 21 — he can safely live on his own.
Summing up John and the Messlords and, well, his reason for being these days, Pete muses: “It’s great to be in a position to give back. Honestly, giving back and helping folks out keeps me ambitious. I want to create opportunities for other people to give and make an impact. I want others to feel how good it feels. To me, giving is like a muscle. It grows. It gets stronger. You get more and more excited about it the more you develop it. I want to teach others, or at least expose them to what it is to make a difference in someone else’s life.”
As we finish our chat and are saying goodbye, his phone (that is sitting on the table between us) rings and lights up with “MOM CALLING.” He looks down at it, smiles, looks up and nods and waves to me, then takes the call.
That’s Pete for you, he answers when he feels “called.”
Thanks Pete! For your time, your stories, your passion, your burgers – but mostly for making a difference in people’s lives.