U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue with Mary and Mike Howard.
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Early this month, Mike and Mary Howard were busy making their usual plans for Valentine’s Day: preparing special menu items for more than 150 neighbors and friends at their Inn at Tres Piño restaurant.

It may not seem romantic, but the Howards like spreading their own brand of pasta love on that special day.
This year, however, would be a night to remember.

On one week’s notice, they would be asked to open their special-event guest house for a buffet dinner for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and an entourage of more than 30.

Perdue was in California for a whirlwind day of meetings and farm tours, and needed a place to eat and meet some farm leaders.

“It was magical, how it all happened,” Mike Howard recalled last week.

It unfolded at San Benito High School, where Mike’s son Brandon works. The husband of one of Brandon’s co-workers is a farmer, and had heard through a California Farm Bureau contact that Perdue would be visiting Central California and might need a place to eat—on Valentine’s Day. Brandon said he would check it out with his dad, and the plan was set.

“We had been sold out for two weeks,” Mike said.

“I heard that some dignitaries were looking for a place to eat, so I said O.K, they could use our guest house,” which the Howards had remodeled for special events.

He said he got the first call on Feb. 7, but really didn’t get confirmation until Feb. 12, when an advance security team asked to stop by for a walk-through. There would be another security check the morning of Feb. 14.

“They even had to check out the bathroom,” he said.

The Howards were expecting 160 dinner guests, and had already lined up a full staff of 27 to handle the evening, one of their busiest nights of the year.

Mary, Brandon, daughter Morgan, who lives in Hollister, and son Garrett, all pitched in. Garret just finished four years as a Marine, where he served in the Middle East and Europe. Their other daughter, Samantha, is a nursing student.

“We were seated for 24 dignitaries and guests and eight-member security detail,” Mike said. “We set up a strolling dinner buffet, and set up a conference table for a group discussion.”

The menu? Skirt steak in Teriyaki marinade, the Inn’s special chicken picata and “Pinnacle pasta.”

“We also really focused on the local San Benito County wines,” he said.

Mike is in his 28th year running this country restaurant off Highway 25 in Tres Piños. He and his family live outside Tres Piños, with a residence in Ridgemark.

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