Perez Tribute: Go-to man Torabi found the heart in a restaurant community that graciously insured that Perez’ ‘family’ got the very best

Tom Kennedy

As we now know, the last act of Sgt. Steve Perez’ career demonstrated the selfless commitment he had to serving the people he was sworn to protect.

Sgt. Perez perished in Hurricane Harvey’s flood waters while he drove his shop under a freeway on his way to his duty station. He perished in the overwhelming flood waters. His commitment however will not be forgotten.

As Gavin Torabi puts it: “Perseverance that rests on commitment with a community-minded passion even in the darkest hour, that commitment knows no limits.” Torabi was telling the story of the steadfast community involvement devoted to Perez and his dedication to duty.

This last act of moral obligation will never be forgotten by the Houstonians Perez served. Neither will the best citizens had to offer on the day Perez’ life was truly celebrated, not with a brief funeral reception with a somber mood but a day-long banquet that provided more than just a moment. It was a day of thank you and a story of hope.

 

Celebration of Life

 

The story of that celebration will go down as one that will be long remembered on the pages of HPD history.

According to his family, Perez – the husband and father – would have far more preferred a celebration of his life over a somber ceremony. He would want laughter over tears, funny “war stories” over eulogies. Bonding over parting.

HPD and HPOU expected thousands of city dignitaries, regular citizens and, especially, law enforcement family members from all over Greater Houston, the state of Texas and the rest of the nation.

How would these family members be greeted, and given an opportunity to connect and pay homage together to a friend that had become a symbol of an undeterred spirit to a city that kept fighting through a major disaster. What kind of experience could capture this spirit?

The decision process started at HPOU and involved many of the same players who rallied Houston restaurants and servers of all qualities and quantities of food to feed HPD officers breakfast, lunch and dinner for the endless weeks their services were required 24/7 in Harvey’s aftermath.

According to the Union leadership, once again Gavin Torabi and the countless members of the 10tkl team, the “loaves and fishes” mastermind of the spectacular plan that fed first responders three meals a day for more than two weeks.

Torabi overheard the HPOU’s executive staff discussing the problem of feeding  the estimated thousands of people who would be attending Perez’ memorial service on Sept. 13. They wanted a banquet and a celebration of life.

In fact, it was the request of Perez’ surviving family that they not attend in order that HPD officers and other law enforcement family members could relax and celebrate the sergeant’s life inside and outside HPD. He was a devoted family man who faithfully went to his duty stations for 34 years with the Department.

The curveball was how to project the outpouring of support, and make sure every officer that came to the reception shared the same experience. “72 hours prior to the event we realized the number of attendees may be in the 3,500 range.”

Torabi had a feeling: Why not set up tables fit for a feast and set for heroes? Why not show the men and women of the Department alongside the countless out of town Departments that the communites that they serve tirelessly and without acclaim truly appreciates the gift that they provide. A setting where they could sit down, relax, talk about their fallen brother, knowing that any given day there is a heavy price that goes with the duties that go with protecting the people.

For his team not only was the preparation, the quality of the food, but more importantly that the officers knew that this is what they would experience from the community in such a time.

“Commitment from Sgt. Perez led us to action, and the fearless action of the first responders and law enforcement brought us all closer. Why not make these officers feel that once this bridge has been built we stay connected,” Torabi said during an interview. “This was more than food, a reception, and condolences. This was a thank you, and a we are there for you. We as a city can actually take care of you for a day. That is what relief in any relationship is about. When we as citizens need help we do not hesitate to call, and these officers do not hesitate to give.”

Torabi with his sister Tonya Torabi worked with the tireless efforts of  Alissa Goldsmith, Lauren Brackman Berger, Angela Lipsey, Olga Panchenko, Courtney Caplan Young, Pamela Braden, Kerry Pauley, Daisy Durham, Laura Cernock, Steve Soloski, Leigh Ann Seyffert and Amber Townsend.

Once again our story centers around a main character, Gavin Torabi, the so-called “loaves and fishes” guru who led the set-up of a three-meals-a-day routine for Houston area first responders during the grueling 24/7 aftermath duty of Hurricane Harvey.

Operating hand-in-glove with the HPOU to mastermind the operation, Torabi coordinated Houston restaurants and food suppliers to produce the very best meals for hungry and often exhausted officers, firefighters, constables, national guardsmen and civilian rescuers. In its September issue, the Badge & Gun printed many pages listing these generous donors to show heartfelt appreciation.

Torabi happened to be in the HPOU office when he overheard the problem of feeding another hoard of law enforcement personnel in Houston for the Steve Perez memorial service.

Funeral receptions with food are common, every-day happenings. But for more than 2,000 people?

Torabi readily answered the call. He put together a plan that enabled Houston finest restaurants to provide the best lunches and dinners for Houston’s finest officers and their brothers and sisters from all over America.

“We went out to the individual restaurants who assisted the most during the hurricane ordeal,” Torabi said in an interview. “One by one, whatever quantity we asked for they gave double”.

“This was their way of saying ‘We really respect and honor what you guys lay on the line for us.’ There was an emotional tie-in in the very beginning.

“The widow, at Steve’s request, provided the ‘hook.’ That’s a helluva thing to say: ‘Don’t remember me; get together and celebrate what you do.’ ”

Torabi explained that these great restaurants and fast food chains had been geared up to provide the meals for officers during Harvey’s aftermath (See “Meet Gavin Torabi, the Man with his Team that fed 201,200 meals to HPD Officers and First Responders” in the September B&G).

By the week of the Perez memorial service they were just getting their businesses cranked up again when Torabi again pushed their button for help.

Torabi had his go-to people, one of whom was Lauren Brackman Berger, an ex-professional who is now a stay-at-home mom. “Lauren became a key outlet on the surge protector. She began working the phones.”

In what amounted to “a whirlwind situation,” the calm and cool Berger asked and received when she called restaurants all over Houston, many of whom knew the drill that entailed feeding large number of people.

 

Unconditional Love

 

The resulting warm-hearted dedication to the memory of Steve Perez and the appreciation for his fellow officers rained down harder than Harvey!

Torabi didn’t schedule paper plates, paper napkins and microwaved meals; no, he found plates and linen, knives, forks, filet mignon from Del Friscos Galleria and Arthur Mooradian, gourmet Chicken and Seafood Creole from Carl Walker and Martin Weaver of Brennan’s Houston, Beef Bourguignon and Coq Au Vin from Pedro Teyuca, Tommy Nally, Emmanuel Hodencq of Toulouse River Oaks, Spanish Wings and Red Velvet Cake with from Lexie Davis and DeAnn Thigpen of Peska Cocina on Post Oak, Filet Fajita from Mary Campos of El Teimpo Corporate. It would be a banquet fit for kings and queens.

Torabi and Tonya contacted Lauren Brackman Berger. “Lauren was our connection rolodex. We would have a need and she would connect us to someone whom she knew cared.” Lauren connected Torabi and his sister with Courtney Caplan Young of Caplan Miller Events.

His source Berger led him to Courtney Caplan Young, a local event coordinator identified as the best source to help put together this enormous feeding event. Torabi talked with Mrs. Young as she was about to meet with her pediatrician. The birth of a child was imminent.

Torabi got to the point: “I hear that you’re about to have a child and I’d like to throw an easy assignment to you right before your delivery to come meet at the Union.”

The man has a sense of humor. So did Young. She showed up.

“When Gavin called I jumped at the incredible opportunity to help in this special Harvey-related effort and support the HPD. They are true heroes,” young said. Courtney was kind enough to show up at the HPD union three hours after we spoke, and together we organized our wish list.

Torabi, a Houston business entrepreneur, was pleased with the fact that he had never before met Young, a situation that emphasized that more and more Houston businesses are eager and willing to demonstrate their love and respect for the men and women in Houston blue.

Together the two expanded the planning circle after compiling “a shopping list and wish list of what we needed.”

For one thing, HPOU wanted to provide “areas where officers could get together and talk.” The Union facilities hold only so many. Tents were necessary for the front and the back of the building.

Alas, by this point in the month of September most tents used in Harvey were headed to Florida and Puerto Rico.

Torabi used one of his favorite techniques – he used an HPOU telephone to call tent companies so they would know by Caller ID that he wasn’t just some outsider needed help. Ultimately, Any Occasion Party Rental came through with a tent; so did Richard’s Tent and Party Rental.

One of the tents enabled the Baton Rouge DA’s Cook-off team to better serve a special variety of creole barbecue made especially for their fellow law enforcement officials.

Inside was no different. Torabi credited Loren Wesley, the operations manager for events at the Downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel, for slaying the devils in the details.

To wit: Wesley supplied linen, plates and silver wear for each meal. And how about table attendants to bus the dirty dishes and leftovers? Yes. Done!

“Basically,” Torabi recalled, “she allowed the staff to make it feel like a banquet celebrating an officers efforts rather than a funeral reception.”

Further, he said, “We wanted it to be special, and made from scratch with love. It wasn’t a Happy Hour appetizer-driven thing.”

Like stated earlier in this story, Houston provided the best for Houston’s finest as a special tribute and appreciation to Sgt. Steve Perez for his ultimate sacrifice, one Torabi believes will never be forgotten if not in large part due to the quality of food in return for the officers’ quality of dedicated service.

How about dessert?

The organized team found a way to get not just any gelato but “custom gelato for 2,500 that revolved around local inspiration, according to Torabi. “Every two hours fresh gelato was brought in for the officers and dignitaries from Leigh Rubino and Lindsey Greenwell of Gelazzi Gelato Heights,” he said.

Tiffs Treats stepped in and volunteered more than 2,000 cookies “Literally fresh-baked cookies made specifically for the officers dropped every 90 minutes by Zach Medelin of Tiffs Treats,” Torabi said, adding, “Every cookie was warm for eight hours.”

Musician Seth Keiffer and the Richard Brown Orchestra both played live music for the entire day.

 

Heartfelt Tribute

 

The servings continued from noon until 6 p.m. and was available until the day-long event ended at 8 p.m.

Torabi made it a point to talk to the actual decision-makers at every restaurant and food service business, always advising them that their contribution would not be meant as a business write-off for special recognition. “Their question became not if but when do you need it?” he said.

None of the contributors asked for or received a donation receipt. Torabi said their food and other contributions came from their hearts.

“The world is more sensitive and guarded now more than ever, and Sgt. Perez went to work that day trying to make a difference. We wanted to make sure he knows how much a difference he made- because of his action we all became connected.”

And that was what tied the purposes of the impressive event together for all-time. Sgt. Perez dedicated his heart – and his life – to serving and protecting Houstonians. They remembered him by giving their best.