Andrew Thomas Lee
Friends and family: Kara Hidinger and her husband, Staplehouse chef Ryan Smith, who got married last year, with Jen and Ryan Hidinger (Kara’s brother) at the Hidingers’ home last May.
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It Takes a Restaurant

John Kessler - June 2014

Chefs and restaurateurs have long lent their good names to charitable causes. But now they’re looking out for the world outside their restaurants by channeling proceeds into self-started, community-focused nonprofits. Or, as in Atlanta, hospitality leaders and workers unite to start a legacy restaurant to take care of their own.

One Saturday night last May, as she was crossing a city street, Angela Riley was hit by a drunk driver. The car struck her with such force that her skull cracked the windshield.

After a few touch-and-go days, she was transferred to an Atlanta rehab hospital. There, Riley spent the better part of a month on the acquired brain injury floor—first healing her wounds and then learning to cope with the cognitive gaps where she used to have working memory. The timing couldn’t have been worse for the then 25 year old waitress, who had less than $500 in the bank. Sure, her parents’ insurance covered the medical treatment, but she still had to pay rent, utilities, and monthly payments on a new car. Like many restaurant workers, she was living on tips, living on the edge.

Thanks to a unique Atlanta nonprofit called The Giving Kitchen, Riley was able to secure a $1,000 grant that made all the difference. This modest gift allowed her to keep her apartment and her car. It proved to be her only bridge to the other side of calamity.

“Not having to worry about all that made getting healthy so much easier,” Riley says. “I’m very fortunate for my family and friends, and for this city.”

TGK should make any cook or waiter grateful to belong to Atlanta’s restaurant community. What started with one charitable event to help a chef who was facing down a tragedy has blossomed into a remarkable coalition of care. Legacy restaurant operators, rock-and-roll chefs with pig tattoos, major Atlanta corporations, barbacks, and the dining public have all joined forces to contribute to this safety net for sick and injured hospitality workers. It’s unlike anything in the country.

Of the more than 13 million restaurant workers (about a tenth of the U.S. labor force), few receive benefits through group health plans. A study conducted by the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United shows that 88 percent of foodservice employees polled try to work through injury and illness because they can’t afford the time off. TGK hopes to rectify this situation for Atlanta hospitality workers.

It also plans to work closely with a few key players.

This fall, TGK will move into a shared space with its long-planned restaurant subsidiary, Staplehouse. The two will occupy an historic building in the heart of the city’s red-hot Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, the historically black business district that’s now filled with edgy bars, restaurants, and start-ups. Helming the kitchen at Staplehouse will be Ryan Smith, who, after years as a deputy in the city’s top kitchens, is ready for his star turn. To say Staplehouse is Atlanta’s most anticipated opening of the year might be an understatement. With its combination of buzz, ambition, outreach, and nonprofit mission, this restaurant promises to be a game changer.

“Part of what we’re doing at Staplehouse is asking the question, ‘How do we build better communities through food?’” says Smith, a Culinary Institute of America grad who made his name during three years as executive chef at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South. “It’s so important in this industry because people work so hard.”

Throughout the country, restaurants are embracing the word “community” and all its shades of meaning like never before. They think not only of the guests who can afford $12 craft cocktails, but also of their urban neighbors who couldn’t conceive of such a thing, and of waiters and cooks who chose restaurant work with the hope that it would be more than a dead-end job. In a way, the very idea for Staplehouse started with community outreach.

Five years ago, a young couple, Ryan and Jen Hidinger, ran a weekly supper club from their dining room. Ryan was working as chef at Muss & Turner’s, a casual neighborhood restaurant. But on his day off he prepared five course meals with wine pairings for guests who bought tickets online. The supper club was called Prelude to Staplehouse, named for the modest neighborhood restaurant the Hidingers hoped to open. (The word, a portmanteau, popped out of Ryan’s head one day, encapsulating his philosophy of cooking and hospitality.)

“We knew we wouldn’t be able to open a restaurant that had legs without doing it,” says Jen Hidinger, 31, who sensed they had to build an avid customer base even if they were years away from actual financing. Prelude to Staplehouse proved a hit. Bloggers and food writers wrote glowing reports, solidifying its cult status. Soon enough, tickets sold out within minutes of appearing online. It continued drawing crowds for several years, though the Hidingers’ dream of a brick-and-mortar restaurant never got any closer. No lender they approached during the recession was eager to take a chance on an untested couple.

Just before Christmas 2012, Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer of the gall bladder. The news rocked the Atlanta food world, particularly its close-knit community of chefs who tend to collaborate as much as they compete. Hidinger, like many, had worked his way through many of the top kitchens. Those he hadn’t befriended behind the line, he knew from the Southern city’s endless season of outdoor charity events, wine dinners, and festivals.

Within the month, a huge coalition of chefs and restaurateurs had organized and executed a tasting event that raised $275,000—more than enough to keep the Hidingers solvent as they sought aggressive cancer treatment. From this event was born the outline of TGK, a plan that was devised by Hidinger and his boss/mentor, Ryan Turner, through a series of conversations and late night e-mails. A local nonprofit consultancy came on board and helped them fast-track 501c3 status. Restaurants held wine dinners. Corporations wrote big checks. Countless diners chipped in a buck or two via restaurant check donations. Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Company released a special beer. The Giving Kitchen’s momentum was unstoppable.

With it also came the renewed dream of Staplehouse. Over the course of the next year, the Hidingers raised money for the restaurant in ways large and small, from a crowdsourcing campaign targeted to consumers to investments from high-profile Atlanta restaurateurs, including George McKerrow Jr. (Ted’s Montana Grill) and Bob Campbell (Taco Mac). “I think it’s a spectacular idea, and our community is lucky to have this opportunity,” McKerrow says of Staplehouse. “It’s another chance for Atlanta to pioneer an idea.”

By the time Ryan Hidinger died a year later, at the age of 36, he had lived the most exciting year of his life. He had also secured a board of investors, a gracious 1906 brick building with a walled patio in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward, an architectural plan from a top Atlanta firm, and a chosen successor in Smith, his soul brother and his sister’s husband.

Smith, during his time as executive chef at Empire State South, had developed a kind of organo-porktastic style with global overtones and a DIY ethos. Dishes such as lardo-glazed octopus with pork cracklings and the kitchen’s yogurt, or crisp pork belly set over kimchi-infused rice grits defined his (and Atlanta’s) style. Local, seasonal, swine-centric.

“I think that I was really intrigued by Southern food,” says the Pennsylvania native, “and I was understanding and trying to learn as much as I could. I felt it was important to take the influences of other cultures that moved into the South. If you’re using Southern ingredients, you’re cooking Southern food.” (“Ryan just gets it,” says Acheson.)

But his experience of the year spent with Hidinger as he tried to abate the effects of cancer through diet changed him. “That whole experience was pretty eye-opening,” says Smith, who shed weight along with Hidinger, as he turned his attention from curing fatback to brewing kombucha. “Health has become a huge part of the way I eat, the way I cook, and the way I think about food. The food at Staplehouse is going to be very vegetable driven, healthy, and fresh. I don’t want people to walk away from a meal and be so full they’re going to get sick.”

While Smith plans to pay homage to Hidinger’s culinary style at Staplehouse, he knows that his own evolved approach will differ. “We definitely complemented each other. His food was very simple and pure, all about celebrating ingredients. Mine is more a mixture of manipulating and not manipulating the ingredients. It will be interesting.”

Smith, like other key management personnel at Staplehouse, will draw a salary below what he could earn elsewhere. But he’s not complaining: All of the restaurant’s profits will funnel directly into TGK. The foundation recently brought on a full-time executive director, Stephanie Harvey Galer, who will focus on formalizing grant-making procedures and making sure that hospitality workers know they can protect themselves from the reverse domino effect of injury or illness. Grant recipients to date have included a bartender who cut her hand severely on a broken glass and a line cook who underwent surgical treatment for cancer. Galer says her goal is “to harness all of this amazing support into a strategic vision for TGK’s long-term stability without slowing our momentum.”

Restaurateurs beyond Atlanta have begun looking at a variety of nonprofit dining models. New Orleans’ Café Reconcile provides work training to at-risk youth in the distressed Central City neighborhood, while providing low-cost meals to the public. “Pay what you can” restaurants, such as Cafe 180 in Englewood, Colorado, or Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey, seek to provide quality meals to the hungry without the stigma of a food kitchen. Both rely on volunteerism.

But others go after upscale clientele and their upscale spending habits. North Carolina chef/restaurateur/minister Jim Noble (Rooster’s and the now-closed Noble’s) opened The King’s Kitchen in downtown Charlotte with a surefire concept: easygoing Southern “meat and three”–style fare in a setting that Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis terms “California contemporary.” It looks like Marin County, and the pimento cheese is delicious. All of the profits go to partner Christian ministries that provide food for Charlotte’s hungry and employment opportunities for its poor. While there’s a little signage, you may not even know that Noble traffics in anything beyond awesome fried chicken.

“Because he’s Christian, Noble takes the attitude that he’s doing this for God and not to get attention for himself,” says Purvis. “He keeps his light under a barrel a little bit.”

Some restaurants tithe a portion of their profits to deserving charities. Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco gives 75 cents on each entrée sold to a local food bank. The total donation has added up to over $250,000 since the program began in 2010. Commonwealth, also in San Francisco, gives $10 from every $75 tasting menu to a new beneficiary every two weeks. Past recipients have included the St. Anthony Foundation, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Mission Community Market, and a trust for a young family that lost its father. Executive chef/co-owner Jason Fox says, “It just felt right to give something back.”

Others play up the “community” angle with abandon, knowing it invokes both the warmth of a neighborhood wine bar and the good juju of civic engagement. This spirit seems to best appeal to Millennial generation restaurateurs, chefs, and guests, who find a second home in their neighborhood hangouts. (This, despite the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent assertion that Millennials value individualism over engagement.) None typify this spirit as well as Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla CEO Elon Musk), along with Jen Lewin, who opened their flagship, The Kitchen, in Boulder, Colorado, as a high-end farm-to-table restaurant. They’ve since expanded into Denver and added a mid-range restaurant called The Kitchen Next Door. “They’re very into creating community around the table,” says Denver Post food editor Kristen Browning-Blas. Indeed, The Kitchen’s website shows a cook in a striped apron sitting down with merry guests in the dining room, local microbrews on tap, and much drinking around rough-hewn wooden tables. Matheson and Musk understand that chefs and bartenders are the new heroes of today’s hyperlocal urban lifestyle.

While their earnestness may drift into Portlandia territory, Matheson and Musk show as much interest in their neighbors as their chickens. In 2011, they founded The Kitchen Community, a 501c3 nonprofit that supplies local schools with modular “learning gardens” to help teach children to grow, prepare, and share their food. A portion of profits from each of their restaurants helps fund the project. “They’re really into that simple idea that you can come together around the table, and good can come from it,” says Browning-Blas.

Indeed, what started at the table of Ryan and Jen Hidinger five years ago will be felt for years in Atlanta. Angela Riley still tears up when she describes the feeling of waking up two weeks after her accident to discover the whole Atlanta restaurant community had her back. “For something so terrible to happen,” she says, “the outcome couldn’t have been better.”

John Kessler is the dining critic and editor at the Atlanta Journal–Constitution.