Local restaurants provide a variety of food samples at Toast to Life.
Food Network will be on hand to help celebrate Toast to Life’s 20th anniversary
DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
Toast to Life celebrates its 20th anniversary this week in an event that has steadily helped fund the programs of Resource Center.
Toast to Life began as a wine auction, but it’s maintained its success by regularly re-inventing itself. The event has grown into a silent and live auction, but for the last 15 years or so, rather than featuring wines, restaurants are the star attraction.
Among the restaurants at this year’s event are a number of Oak Cliff venues from in and around Bishop Arts, including Bolsa, Oddfellows and Stock & Barrel.
Cameron Hernholm, Resource Center’s chief development officer, is amazed by the generosity of the restaurants who not only supply the food for 800 guests but also the staff who aren’t in their restaurants on a Saturday night, normally their busiest night of the week.
Stock & Barrell owner M.G. Stevens just shrugged and said they’d make it work, just as they have for the past three years they’ve participated.
“We have a really great team,” she said. “Several folks are helping me out.”
Stevens said some staff will come help her set up and others will stop by after the event’s over.
Not only is Stevens participating in Toast to Life on her restaurant’s busiest night of the week, she also helped recruit a number of the other restaurants participating, and she is in the middle of preparing to open a second location. Her new place will be in the Design District, right down the street from the Empire Room, where Toast to Life will take place.
Stevens said she does it because Resource Center makes a difference in the community and because the event is just a lot of fun.
Hernholm’s favorite thing about the event is the cake that Food Network star Bronwen Weber creates for Toast to Life each year.
This year, a film crew will follow Weber to the event with her cake and stay through the cake cutting, getting video for use in Weber’s new show, Dallas Cakes.
The Toast to Life auction includes a variety of items. Hernholm said volunteers spend days going door-to-door asking storeowners to donate to the event. And Toast to Life’s auction has gained a reputation for the collection of fine art it offers each year.
Each year’s party has had a different theme. To celebrate the center’s 30th anniversary a few years ago, the theme was “1983,” and people came dressed as Michael Jackson, Madonna and others. “Voodoo on the Trinity” spotlighted New Orleans, and for the “Mad Hatter’s Ball,” attendees came dressed as characters from Alice in Wonderland.
This year’s theme is “Bollywood,” and the night will feature a hookah lounge, a Bollywood flash mob and henna artists.
The event contributes $250,000 a year to Resource Center in unrestricted funds — money that can be used for anything from starting new programs to paying the electric bill. But Resource Center hasn’t always been so successful in raising money through events.
Toast to Life grew out of the much less successful Dance for Life, the brainchild of Resource Center’s first executive director, John Thomas.
The first Dance for Life featured Grace Jones and her backup singers performing at the Convention Center Arena, a venue that holds 6,000 people. Jones and entourage were living in Amsterdam and agreed to perform for a fee. Once the contract was signed, they refused coach seats and insisted on first class only, boosting the cost considerably.
Ticket sales for her concert were dismal. Without social media and with no advertising budget to help out, Resource Center only sold a few hundred tickets.
The venue was booked only until midnight, but Jones and company remained backstage until well past then. The audience dwindled, and by the time the show began at about 1 a.m., only about 40 people remained in the audience. Once she began performing, though, Jones and her dancers quickly moved from the stage to the center of the arena, and the few remaining people left in the hall all got a chance to dance with her.
From that disaster, which cost the agency $40,000, Dance for Life moved to The Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum and began to make money.
In 1999, Dance for Life became Toast to Life, a wine auction that was profitable from the beginning and has since been the signature fundraising event for Resource Center.
Until 2014, Hernholm said, proceeds benefited HIV services. Since then, money has been used for a wide variety of programs under Resource Center’s umbrella. Those include youth, aging and transgender programs as well as simply funding maintenance or paying for utilities.
To explain the importance of those unrestricted funds that Toast to Life brings in, Hernholm said she’s gotten grants to fund Resource Center’s expanded counseling programs, but there’s no such thing as a grant to turn the lights on in the counseling rooms.