COMMUNITY GEMS: Restaurant owner says ‘a meal can give you hope’

Bill Castro, left, co-owner of El Meson, with husband Mark Abbott, who is also the restaurant's special events chef.

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Bill Castro, left, co-owner of El Meson, with husband Mark Abbott, who is also the restaurant's special events chef.

Bill Castro serves food, compassion at El Meson

When Russia invaded Ukraine this year, a popular West Carrollton restaurant specializing in South American cuisine wanted to do something.

So El Meson held an Eat4Ukraine campaign, cooking up special dishes of chicken Kyiv served with Ukrainian potato pancakes, Co-owner Bill Castro said.

The meals, combined with direct donations, raised more than $10,000 in two months for World Central Kitchen. The nonprofit organization has served more than 16 million meals and delivered 8 million pounds of food in Ukraine.

“A meal can give you hope,” Castro said.

He said that he was hit in the gut when he heard a question about why a South American restaurant would do such a thing, but he turned it into an opportunity to change minds.

“We’re all citizens of the world,” he said. “It’s not about borders.”

Castro was touched by the events in Ukraine, and he also is involved in other causes, said Leslie Loper, a neighbor who nominated her long-time friend as a Dayton Daily News Community Gem.

“He does a lot for the community,” she said. “If he knows there’s a need, he’s right there.”

Castro is both caring and charismatic, Loper said. El Meson’s employees are treated like family, and customers feel the same way. Her grandson is a picky eater, and she remembers Castro taking the time to help him choose a meal he would enjoy.

“He makes everyone feel so special and cared for,” she said.

In addition to El Meson’s special events and fundraisers, Castro has shared the language, culture and food with students for about 30 years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he would meet with about 200 schools annually, in a program for up to 80 kids at a time that also included lunch and dancing.

“The whole year I’ve had teachers ask if we were going to do this again,” he said, and Castro began welcoming classes once more in May.

It is rewarding to see their engagement and the understanding they leave with, Castro said. Some of those past students have even become Spanish teachers who have then brought their own classes.

“I need to make a difference for these kids,” he said.

El Meson, located at 903 E. Dixie Drive, is a family affair. The restaurant was founded by Castro’s parents, is now co-owned by Castro and his sister, and his nephew has transitioned into the role of head chef. Castro’s husband, Mark Abbott, is special events chef. Pleasing the restaurant’s diners is still a top motivation, said Castro, 63, of Kettering.

“The needs are sometimes very small, but the appreciation is large,” he said.

Much of his own appreciation is directed toward the restaurant’s staff. Many restaurants’ staffing and hours are still being affected by the pandemic, and he hopes that everyone continues to keep in mind the compassion that brought us together.

“We came to such a screeching stop that I’d like for people to remember humanity and remember there are people going through traumas that we don’t know still,” Castro said. “Patience and a smile go a long way.”

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