As school drew nearer, Hungry Howies’ owner Ali Sobh partnered with Outback Steakhouse’s managing partner intern Gracie Martinez to host Ali & Gracie’s First Annual Back to School Bash in conjunction with Plant City-based nonprofit Operation Paying It Forward.
The event was held at the Sadye Gibbs Martin Community Center on Saturday, offering food, refreshments, school supplies, free haircuts and fun to hundreds of local kids as they prepare for their upcoming school year.
“This has just blown my mind, Ali’s mind, it’s just crazy,” Martinez said. “We weren’t expecting it to be this way for the first annual Ali and Gracie’s Back to School bash so it’s definitely exciting to see and how the community came together for us.”
In past years, Sobh has hosted back-to-school events through he and his father’s Hungry Howies restaurant located at 208 N Alexander St. He says that he saw a need in the community as he returned to Plant City after college and that his back to school events have progressively grown larger and larger over the years, leading to him reaching out to Martinez in an attempt to combine their philanthropic efforts this year. Martinez has engaged in a number of charitable efforts throughout her time with Plant City’s Outback Steakhouse, located at 1203 Towngate Ct., and jumped at the opportunity. Collecting funds, along with over 2,000 pieces of school supplies through a donation and raffle event at Outback, the team began additionally reaching out to local businesses that would be willing to promote themselves and provide food, drinks and/or other amenities to attendees, with Sobh and Hungry Howies providing them with credit in return.
“Gracie was doing a back to school event, I was doing one and I knew that they always did a drive for school supplies, so I reached out to Gracie and said that I’m doing one too and that we should do one together,” Sobh said. “We’re two of the more powerful businesses in Plant City so I said what a great opportunity to work together. I know that Outback’s structured a little different with corporate but Gracie is the face of their social media and does all of their charity events so I reached out to her and she was glad to partner with me and do it bigger.”
With volunteer efforts from Pelican’s Snowball, Citi Ice, Cheat Meals and Zeus’s Training Hall, along with free haircuts provided by Golden Era Barbershop, pizza provided by Hungry Howies, a stand with chips and hot dogs manned by Plant City Police, inflatables from Joyful Jumps and face painting from Martinez, the event provided a ton of fun for families and kids as the summer winds down.
“It’s a really awesome back to school event,” local parent Lubna Shahen said. “I brought my kids, this is their first time here, but I love it. It’s fun. The kids are enjoying it and it’s a great thing that they did for the community, they gave their time and effort to make the kids happy.”
Operation Paying It Forward is a 100 percent volunteer-based nonprofit organization based in Plant City and founded in 2018, aimed at helping residents throughout the Plant City community as well as rural areas in eastern Hillsborough County and parts of Western Polk County.
“This event was community driven,” Michelle Valdes of Operation Paying It Forward said. “We don’t have major sponsors, we don’t have grants or anything like that. This is community-run, community-driven, 100 percent volunteers and no one makes a penny off of this event, it all goes back into the community.”