PHOTOGRAPHY CONTRIBUTED BY THE GIVING KITCHEN
Friends, family and complete strangers gather around tables across the world each day to break bread. We bare our souls to our loved ones, celebrate our victories, mourn our losses, vent our frustrations and raise our glasses in appreciation of others. From the comfort food served in your grandmother’s kitchen to the chef-prepared meals at fine-dining establishments, our memories are connected to the meals shared during both good and bad times.
“Many of these meals are shared in our homes, but so many others are prepared and served by the hardworking people in the food and beverage industry. The waitress who keeps your coffee topped off, the line cook who knows you like your fries extra crispy, the dishwasher hustling to meet the demands of a busy lunch rush or the hostess who greets you as you walk through the door… these are the people working long hours to ensure our important moments in life are catered to.”
“Like shadows in the night, they often go overlooked and are certainly underappreciated. Whether it’s Waffle House or Ruth’s Chris, these are the people who set the tone for your experience, and it’s the vision of the restaurateurs that they are selling to the consumer. It’s a work from vision to fruition and finally sustainability, with lots of moving parts needed to achieve that evolution.”
Though they are some of the hardest workers in our economic system, food and beverage workers often don’t have proper health insurance; they struggle with self-care due to the demands of the job; they live paycheck to paycheck and if a crisis occurs, turmoil ensues.”
Luckily, restaurant staffs are like families and that bond is defined when a coworker is in a time of need, no matter how big or how small.
A situation like this arrived for Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger on December 21, 2012. He was diagnosed with stage-IV gallbladder cancer. He was given six months to live and a less than five percent chance of survival.
Hidinger was established in the industry and had been operating a wildly successful supper club called Prelude to Staplehouse with his wife Jen since 2009, with plans to open a restaurant under that same name. Focus immediately shifted to his diagnosis, with his peers and loved ones focusing on how they could contribute to his treatment.
“We had to let go of our dream,” recalls Staplehouse Spokesperson and Co-Founder of the Giving Kitchen (GK), Jen Hidinger-Kendrick. “The support we received from our friends and family allowed that dream to endure. We started to discuss the reality of Staplehouse again, and then we got the call from Ryan Turner [from Muss & Turners] and knew it could really happen.”
From there, Turner, along with other friends and family formed a committee and planned the first Team Hidi (Ryan’s begrudgingly given nickname) event, with proceeds going towards Ryan’s treatment. The event exceeded expectations, raising $275,000. Overwhelmed by the generosity, they were inspired to begin what is now known as the Giving Kitchen (a nonprofit organization that provides emergency assistance to restaurant workers in 47 counties in Georgia).
The Hidingers were so moved by what the industry did for them in their time of need that they decided to make their legacy one of giving back to others in need. They co-founded the Giving Kitchen in 2013 and opened the doors to Staplehouse in September 2015, with all after-tax profits from Staplehouse going directly to GK. Though Ryan passed away in January 2014, he left knowing his dream restaurant would be real and the fruits of its labor would benefit his peers for years to come.
In the years since, Staplehouse has risen to critical acclaim nationwide, and within minutes reservations are booked a month in advance. Modern American cuisine is delivered via a chef’s table concept that makes dinner an adventure. The menu is carefully crafted; chefs meticulously pine over every detail to ensure perfection. The dishes are as beautiful as they are delicious and are delivered without a whiff of pretention, allowing those who are new to the concepts laid before them to feel safe outside their comfort zone.
Servers carefully describe each dish, and their description matches what the taste buds experience. From start to finish, it is a well-scripted screenplay that always has a happy ending. A true work of edible art that leaves the customer satisfied but already looking forward to their next Staplehouse adventure.
As Hidinger’s culinary vision lives on with Jen and the crew at Staplehouse, the outreach created from his departure thrives within the Giving Kitchen.
“I was drawn to this organization for so many reasons, but the fact that this all started because of one person always amazes me,” says GK Executive Director, Bryan Schroeder. “What started as helping chefs at independent restaurants changed with Ryan’s vision to incorporate all employees of any brick and mortar restaurant in Metro Atlanta and then on to Athens, Columbus and Rome, GA, with the rest of the state soon to follow.”
Schroeder is the son of a restaurateur, so he knows firsthand what the industry requires of those brave enough to venture into the world of food service entrepreneurship. Success doesn’t come overnight and the road to achieve it can be riddled with pitfalls.
“I grew up in this industry, and the staff at my dad’s restaurant was like our extended family,” recalls Bryan. “I remember what it was like if my mom got sick and had to miss work. Our family felt that financially, but that restaurant supported us while she went back to school and while she helped put my brother and I through school. So to have a chance to be a part of an organization that supports people in the industry that gave us so much is a dream come true.”
His father, John Schroeder, has owned and operated Schroeder’s New Deli on Broad Street in Downtown Rome for the past 37 years. Throughout that time he has personally endured and watched his employees struggle through hard times, times the Giving Kitchen could have certainly offered aide.
“It’s just a real relief knowing that there is a safety net for my employee’s,” says John. “Anything can happen and having a group that can help the people in our industry through those bad times is a win for everyone involved.”
Assistance offered by the Giving Kitchen comes in a variety of forms for a variety of causes. Any restaurant worker in a county currently serviced by GK can apply for aid through an online application process requiring a description of the occurrence or condition, submission of paystubs, confirmation from the employer, lease agreements, and other documentation to verify and warrant awarding a grant.
Direct Grants cover rent and utilities and are designed to keep people in their homes while they recover from crisis situations.
One such case was that of Revolution Donut’s employee, Reggie Ealy. Reggie was diagnosed with multiple Myeloma in July 2016 and began treatment immediately. The disease left him physically unable to work, and treatment was expensive. He exhausted all avenues, but still didn’t have enough money to pay the bills. The Giving Kitchen bridged that gap and allowed him to focus on his recovery by taking care of his living expenses.
This is the mission of the organization at its core, and with over $1.8 million in financial support given thus far, they only want to give more and have developed a sister program to their crisis grants as a social services referral program called SafetyNet.
“SafetyNet is a program we are really excited about,” says Bryan. “It’s easy for restaurant workers to get sucked into the vacuum of addiction. They work late hours, and the party lifestyle is waiting for them when they clock out. That’s only one aspect of what this program connects with. We are able to connect people with resources for housing, transportation, mental health, medical and childcare assistance, and more that they might not find otherwise, and those connections are only going to get better as we expand throughout the state and the Southeast.”
One of the most recent areas to gain services from the Giving Kitchen is Northwest Georgia. Bartow, Chattooga, Floyd, Gordon and Polk counties are all eligible, and that connection is especially important to Schroeder.
“To bring this back home is really special,” says Bryan. “There were so many of my dad’s employees that could have benefited from the programs we offer, and to know that they now have that option is just a really great feeling.”
As Giving Kitchen continues to grow and its for-profit subsidiary, Staplehouse, reaches legendary culinary status, it’s safe to say that Ryan Hidinger’s dream has generated a lifetime supply of smiles via full bellies and assistance for hardworking people, like those friends who supported him in their darkest hours.
Moreover, families are provided with more stories to tell at the dinner table. To apply for assistance, donate or simply learn more about the Giving Kitchen visit www.thegivingkitchen.org Staplehouse reservations are online only and are released the second Friday of every month at 12pm for the next calendar month.