Peno Bar Manager Auctioning Paintings to Help Employees Through Pandemic


From left: "Crying Calabrese Girl" and "The Patient Nurse" have sold, and "Scattered"  is now available. - OCEAN ALEXANDER
  • From left: "Crying Calabrese Girl" and "The Patient Nurse" have sold, and "Scattered" is now available.

The day after St. Louis' first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported, Peno (7600 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-899-9699) chef and owner Pepe Kehm braced for impact. He knew the virus was about to wreak havoc on the city's industry; his close friends in Italy, who were experiencing the horror of the illness, had been telling him as much. Kehm knew he had to get creative, so he launched a meal-delivery service, figuring that guests would be uncomfortable dining inside his restaurant as the virus spread through the region.

A month, a curbside and takeout-only service, and a stay-in-place mandate later, Kehm is again thinking outside the box to take care of his employees. About four weeks ago, he and his bar manager, Ocean Alexander, launched "Let Them Eat the Art," a campaign that they hope will bring in enough money to provide income for his staff.

"When this first started and we went to delivery, we thought, 'How are we going to keep our staff and have them make a few bucks?'" Kehm says. "We knew people could file for unemployment, but we wanted to try to keep them employed. Our chef donated his entire salary to the staff one week, and everyone tried to figure out ways to help."

As Kehm explains, he and Alexander had been doing a series of live videos they called "Quarantine Kitchen," in which they'd update followers on what they were up to that day. Kehm would cook, and Alexander, who is a talented artist, would paint. Eventually, they realized they could turn the paintings into a revenue source.

Kehm purchased the supplies, and Alexander supplied the talent, painting his first piece, "Crying Calabrese Girl," live as followers placed bids. The painting sold for $2,500.

"We knew the artwork could raise money, and when we had so many people step up to bid, we decided to do it again the next week," Kehm says. "We're on our third one now, and it already has bids. It's been so well received."

Kehm is also happy that, as a byproduct of their efforts, Alexander is getting much more exposure for his artwork from people who might not have known of his talent, though, in these difficult times, he and the artist are just concerned about taking care of their colleagues and trying to figure out ways to weather the storm.

"For me, stopping on a dime and trying to go the next way is something I've been doing my whole life," Kehm says. "I've made mistakes, there have been bad operations. I've always had a little of this in me. I keep thinking of my mom's mom who, during World War II, had a little store and was giving stuff away to those who needed it while still figuring out how to stay sustainable because she had ten kids. You do your own thing and try to create. That's how you figure it out."

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