Johnson City restaurant owner driving 81 miles twice a month to serve Jefferson County seniors

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DANDRIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on many restaurant operators who temporarily had to close; then the federal CARES act came along to help those small business operators from going out of business.

Since the pandemic arrived in Tennessee, restaurant operator Ajay Koleth from Johnson City considers his profession a service, not just a job. He’s a caterer and recently has been making an 81-mile trip twice a month south to Jefferson County to provide meals to seniors.

Because of the growing demand to feed older people who are shut-in, Ronda Davis, the director of Jefferson County Senior Services, hired Koleth.

“He actually has a kitchen, a big commercial kitchen where he prepares all these meals. When the money was distributed for the CARES Act, we looked for someone who prepared local meals that could help us feed our seniors and also help a restaurant,” Davis said.

“We went from being unsure what we were going to do during the pandemic to like, wow, this is an amazing blessing,” Koleth said.

On Monday, his first stop was to a retired UT Medical Center surgical technician. Olga, 84, can’t get out anymore. Koleth provides her with enough flash-frozen meals to last two weeks.

“I don’t want to go outside. I’m afraid of (the virus), so that saves me a lot of time,” Olga said. “I used to love to cook, but now I can’t stand long enough to cook.”

Once inside, Koleth loads Olga’s refrigerator with a wide variety of his home cooked meals. His company even provided her with a mini-oven to heat the food.  

“The church used to bring me meals, but by the time they’d get to me they would be cold,” Olga said. “At least this one stays warm.”

“I think it’s been a privilege to serve the older community. I find that we have forgotten our older people,” Koleth said.

His second stop in Jefferson County was to Marjorie, a great-grandmother who lives alone. At 83, she has health issues and can’t cook for herself.

Koleth gets paid for making and delivering meals, but it’s the one-on-one time that’s made the difference.  

“It really warms my heart to see that I get the opportunity to serve them,” Koleth said. “That’s what it is all about … service.”

Not only do the quality dishes prepared at Ajays Kitchen make a nutritional difference for dozens of seniors served in Jefferson County, the meals also help stretch the limited budgets of those women we visited on Monday.

Both Olga and Marjorie said they were grateful.

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