In less than one month, the community and communities past, including childhood friends from across the country, have rallied to raise $14,000 of a $20,000 GoFundMe campaign for Leonard “Big Lenny” Montuori, his hot dog business and his ailing heart.
“People are beautiful,” Montuori said on Monday. “I’m so overwhelmed with everything ... it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to write checks and pay my bills.”
After Rutland’s famous “Big Lenny” and his family were diagnosed with serious health issues in December, less than a year after opening his first indoor restaurant “Big Lenny’s Inside Job,” they had to close the restaurant temporarily and sacrifice the income to address their health.
With credit card bills staring him in the face, Montuori struggled to figure out how he could survive financially when he might have to have more stents put in his heart. He is a candidate for open-heart surgery.
What Montuori and his family didn’t realize was just how big their family really was.
“We were sitting in the living room, and I just thought, ‘We should start a GoFundMe,’” said the campaign’s founder, Carolyn Laird. “So we decided what to write.”
Laird said she’s known Montuori her entire life and grew up eating his food. She said her father has known Montuori for over 35 years, so when the news broke that Montuori was sick, the family sprang into action.
“He’s the most caring person I’ve ever met,” Laird said. “He would do anything for anybody ... it’s a hug and a kiss whenever I see him.”
Laird said the goal of $20,000 is a number organizers figured was not too high or too low, but didn’t foresee coming close to the goal.
“It’s unbelievable,” Laird said. “It’s amazing how big of an effect he has on the community. ... He knows every single person, every single story ... every interaction is special.
“He’s not just a business owner who finishes up and goes home.”
Rob “Sugar Bob” Hausslein, who purchased Vermont Maple Sriracha company from Montuori and his former business partner, donated $1,000 on behalf of his company, Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind.
“We know what it’s like in this business,” Hausslein said. “We know he would do the same for us if we were in this similar situation. ... He’s a guy who knows everybody, and he takes care of them. We believe in kismet and karma and paying it forward.”
Donations from over 150 people ranged from $10 to $1,000, including $100 from Mark and Kelly Foley.
“I’ve known him a long time,” Mark Foley said. “He’s a friend of a lot of people. He’s just an affable guy, a guy you want to cheer for.”
Montuori said he and his family are slowly but surely recovering, but the handfuls of medications are having adverse effects, like muscle aches and exhaustion, preventing him from getting down to his “Inside Job” every day.
Which is really the only thing Montuori wants to do: get back to work.
“I just want my strength back,” Montuori said. “I really want to believe I can get my heart strong again. ... Lenny likes being Lenny. Not this Lenny.”
Montuori said his spirits are lifted when his friends stop by and visit, or when he’s able to get into town, even for awhile. He is working on getting more physically fit with the help of equipment in friends’ home gyms.
“All in all, we’re going in the right direction,” Montuori said. “You don’t try to win the race, you just try to be in it.”
Donations have significantly lightened the stress on his bank accounts, as he was accustomed to paying his bills with his credit. Montuori is going on his sixth month without income from the “Inside Job.”
“I’m not the first person to go through this. ... I don’t expect anything,” Montuori said tearfully. “What a beautiful town.”
For Laird, Montuori convinced her to open her eyes, and her palate, by trying new things.
“I am a very picky eater,” Laird said. “I ask for the most plain food, and he would almost get jokingly offended.”
One day, when she was 17, Montuori wouldn’t accept her plain hotdog order, and began to carefully layer on sauteed peppers and a splash of his famous “Bada-Bing” sauce.
“I ate it, and it’s the only thing I’ll ever order,” Laird said. “He knew what I didn’t know.”
“To me, that’s living,” Montuori said of his days slinging his famous sauces onto hot dogs and sausages in his shop. “I love people. I see people. I’m proud to be one of them. ... I’m as touched by the person who wrote (on the GoFundMe page) about beautiful memories of the cart, as I am by the people who gave money.”