The secret ingredient behind Willy's Bagels and Blends' success in far East County was finally revealed after Karen Richardson, the two-store chain's matriarch, was put to rest last month.
"Karen viewed Willy's as the ultimate vehicle to help people in need," said Ron Richardson, her husband of 35 years.
Canadian-born, Karen was of a quiet demeanor, standing a mere 5 feet 6 inches. She spent most of her time at the shop, in the back, concocting new Willy treats, preparing catering jobs or working on Willy's next community outreach project.
But, you could always count on Karen to peek out from the backroom and greet those around her with that soft smile she was so known for.
"I know that Karen seemed quiet and shy, but there was another side to her," said retired Pastor Larry Porter, who met the Richardson family in 2000 when he took over the flock at Delta Community Presbyterian Church in Discovery Bay.
"She was sort of the main spring that drove the watch, in a sense; she had the inspiration," Porter added. "It was never about her, but always about helping others."
In 2010, Karen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told she had six months to live. Instead of waiting to be consumed by cancer, she immersed herself into making life better for others.
"During her fight against cancer, she got involved with a group called Kaleidoscope at the Byron Methodist Church," Ron said. "It's a support group for cancer patients and she helped contact people (with cancer) and reached out with 'Baskets of Hope.'"
Karen also had a dream of helping the community, not just in small ways, but in a large capacity.
Despite her prognosis, Ron said Karen was determined to provide Thanksgiving dinner and entertainment for "anyone and everyone," an event they coined Street Feast.
With the help of Pastor Bill Reider of Cornerstone Fellowship in Brentwood, local businesses and a whole lot of volunteers, Street Feast became a reality in 2010, serving 500 people that first year. The event has become so successful that by year three an estimated 1,000 people came out to enjoy the feast, music and activities for kids.
"But it didn't stop there," said Ron.
"She expanded the event to include a free giveaway of donated articles, including clothing, baby items, coats and food," he added. "There is a complete store set up called 'God's Closet' for everyone in the community to use (at no cost) ... typically opened from Thanksgiving through New Year's."
And to make sure children don't go without on Christmas morning, Ron said, that on Christmas Eve they opened "His Toy Chest'" and gave away toys to people in need.
"Ron and Karen looked for ways to invest themselves in everything they did," Porter said. "They bought the first Willy's Bagels and Blends in 2005, and sought to make it a family place where everyone would feel at home."
Porter added, "It wasn't just to make money, but to build community, and it worked -- great food, excellent service, and genuine hospitality made it feel like home."
"They (the Richardsons) are amazing, but Karen was the quiet presence behind the whole thing," Porter said.
Ron agreed, "Karen was simply the glue that held the Richardson family together. She will be missed, but her mark is everywhere in the local community because that's who Karen is."
Who: Karen Christine (Shoemaker) Richardson
Born: Oct. 22, 1955
Died: July 19, 2013
Donations: Donations, in Karen's memory, can be sent to: Bruns House -- Hospice of the East Bay, 3470 Buskirk Ave., Pleasant Hill, CA 94523.