A Lunch to Whistle About

Rocky Packard? Wasn’t he an “american idol” finalist? Or is he catcher for the Giants? Wrong on both counts. Rocky Packard is the head chef at Jackson Cafe, Whistlestop’s lunch spot in San Rafael.

Still, Packard is a celebrity. A celebrity chef. “Rocky rocks” is what they say around the cafe, adjacent to Marin’s main transit center on Tamalpais Avenue. That chant is often followed by “The food here is soooo good!” Here’s the story: Two of the county’s top nonprofits — Whistlestop, a 57-year-old organization that promotes independent living and well-being among the county’s many seniors and people with disabilities, and Homeward Bound, which serves a good portion of Marin’s homeless community — recently got together and transformed a bland senior center’s cafe into a lively, tasty treat of a place for lunch. And Rocky Packard was the key ingredient.

“For several years, I was on Homeward Bound’s board of directors,” he recalls, and “all the while I was head of food services for some of Marin’s most upscale markets.” Meanwhile, Whistlestop’s Jackson Cafe, named for H.C. Jackson — founder of nearby mega-store Jackson’s Hardware, whose grant made the eatery possible — was, in the words of Whistlestop’s popular CEO, Joe O’Hehir, “not doing as well as we’d have liked.”

So Whistlestop, with a so-so seniors’ cafe on its hands, approached Homeward Bound — whose Fresh Start Culinary Academy helps get homeless people back into the workforce — for a solution. From the get-go Packard was part of the discussion. And it didn’t take long before Packard — with three decades of high-end restaurant work on his résumé — stepped out of his Homeward Bound directorship, slipped into his chef’s garb and went to work at Whistlestop’s Jackson Cafe. “I was tired of the rat race,” he says. “Despite many very successful operations, alI I heard were the complaints; now I hear nothing but compliments.” Also a plus: Packard now spends evenings with his wife and three sons.

Meanwhile, business at Whistlestop’s Jackson Cafe has all but tripled. “In the past, we’d be lucky to do 25 to 30 lunches a day,” says O’Hehir. “Now it’s more like 75 and 80.”
Small wonder. An outpouring of community donations — for interior design, painting, flooring and draperies — turned a once-drab meeting hall into a warm and attractive cafe. For kitchen staff, Packard brought in academy graduates from Homeward Bound. To ensure the cafe maintained a friendly and talented waitstaff, Whistlestop volunteers — many of whom had been there for years and years — agreed (make that pleaded) to stay on.

And the menu? For now, don’t think about prices; just listen to these entrées — chicken sausage jambalaya, turkey pesto lasagna, beef Stroganoff and Asian chicken with fried rice. Now for the prices: How does $4 to $6 sound? That’s provided you’re over 60 years of age. If you’re a whippersnapper of under 60, prices climb to $6 to $8. And it includes a Packard-inspired dessert such as German chocolate cake, New Orleans pralines or fresh strawberry shortcake. Sandwiches and sides of vegetables and pasta are available for $3 and less. “I’d easily pay $15 to $20 for this quality of food,” says San Rafael public relations exec Gary Tobin after stopping in for a meal. “Lunch is served from 11:30 to 1:30,” adds CEO O’Hehir. “Everyone in Marin, of every age, is welcome here.”