Westport restaurant creates new cocktail to help employee with cancer

Photo of Serenity Bishop
Don Memo in Westport has created a new cocktail called "The Universal Donor" in support of their employee Kali Pulkkinen, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Don Memo in Westport has created a new cocktail called "The Universal Donor" in support of their employee Kali Pulkkinen, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia.

Don Memo / Contributed Photo

WESTPORT — One day in early November, Kali Pulkkinen, a beloved server and manager at Don Memo, noticed she had several bruises on her body.

While used to the occasional bruises from working in a restaurant, Pulkkinen said these particular bruises were different. They were “alarming” and “intense.”

Pulkkinen decided to go to an urgent care to have it checked out. The doctors did lab work and told her that they would have results in three to five days, but the next day she received a call from the doctor telling her to go to the emergency room immediately.

At the age of 31, Pulkkinen was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia, or APML, a rare subtype of acute myeloid leukemia.

“It’s a roller coaster of emotions,” Pulkkinen said. “I don’t even know if I have fully processed it yet. I think it’s hard to pinpoint the exact feeling.”

“Obviously being 31 and having cancer was not part of the plan. I feel frustrated and sad and bored because sitting in a hospital sucks,” she added. “But I also feel overwhelmingly thankful and very lucky.”

Pulkkinen said when she gets up to do a walk around her floor at the hospital for her mental health “by no means am I the sickest person in here.”

While her quick diagnosis and hospital admittance has given her a “weird blend of emotions,” she has found an overwhelming amount of support from the staff at Don Memo and the community at large.

Bill Taibe, owner of Don Memo, recently placed a new item on the menu in support of Pulkkinen. The new cocktail called “The Universal Donor” was inspired by Pulkkinen and was created to spread the word of Pulkkinen’s diagnosis and to raise money for her as she battles her cancer.

“We just thought it would be good way where the community, customers and guests can rally behind Kali and help raise some funds for her,” Taibe said. “We thought it would be a nice way for us to support her. We miss her dearly.”

Taibe said Pulkkinen is a “rock star” who is vibrant, funny, witty and full of energy. She’s a key part of the restaurant’s group and also known for her dad jokes.

“She’s just a fireball,” he said. “Kali is the kind of person that just gives it her all.”

“It’s shocking and heartbreaking,” Taibe continued. “She’s a young girl, but she has a great support system around her and we’re checking in with her everyday. Everybody at the company has been rallying behind her. We just love her and miss her and can’t wait to have her back.”

Taibe said the response to the drink has been great.

He said customers have loved the drink and love it more when they find out what it’s for. Taibe said plenty of people that have come in and made it the drink of the night. Some people who don’t want to drink have ordered a couple of them just to support.

“People have been really supportive,” Taibe said. “I think Kali is definitely one of the favorites in town amongst our many guest. She’s a unique person and she creates really strong relationships with a lot of our customers.”

The drink costs $14 and features Casco Viejo tequila, aperol, sparkling rose, lemon and rose syrup.

Pulkkinen, who participated in coming up with cocktail, said the goal was to try and combine her two go-to drinks. At the end of each shift, the servers are allowed to have one shift drink. Pulkkinen said her go-to drinks are either a glass of rosé or a shot of tequila — the backbone of “The Universal Donor.”

She said she is “thankful” that Taibe and the other restaurant managers put the drink on the menu for her. She said the words “thank you” does not do it justice.

“I feel overwhelming gratitude,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to me. It’s one of those things that make you feel what you do everyday means something to people. I don’t think I ever conceptualized it on the grand scale before all of this.”

Taibe said there is no numerical goal for the new cocktail and whatever amount the cocktail brings in will go straight to Pulkkinen. There is currently no timetable on when the cocktail will stay on the menu, but Taibe said at least until Pulkkinen is back.

He also said the restaurant may match whatever amount the cocktail brings on top of continuing to pay her her full pay even while she is out.

“We wanted to just be there for her so she doesn’t have to worry about that stuff,” Taibe said. “It’s hard enough battling cancer. If we can make sure that she doesn't have to worry about her paychecks and bills and stuff for the time being that’s one less thing and she can focus her energy otherwise.”

serenity.bishop@hearstmediact.com