Members of the Atlanta catering community present a check to Giving Kitchen at its annual fundraiser in February. The nonprofit, honored this week by the James Beard Foundation, provides emergency relief funds to restaurant workers and employees of catering operations, food trucks and concessions stands. CONTRIBUTED BY THE GIVING KITCHEN

Beard award recognizes community’s big heart

On May 6, Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, Bryan Schroeder and Ryan Turner will step onto the stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago during the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards ceremony to accept its 2019 Humanitarian of the Year award on behalf of Giving Kitchen.

You may not have heard of Giving Kitchen, but, if you have visited an Atlanta restaurant in the past six years, you’ve probably met some of the individuals who support the Atlanta-based nonprofit’s efforts to provide emergency relief services to commercial food service workers in Georgia. You might even have met a restaurant employee who contacted the organization to request help during a personal crisis.

A James Beard award is one of the highest recognitions of excellence and achievement for those who labor in the culinary arts world. For Giving Kitchen co-founder Hidinger-Kendrick, Executive Director Schroeder, and board member Turner (of Muss & Turner’s and Local Three), as well as Giving Kitchen’s 10-person staff, this particular Beard award holds deep meaning.

“To win it as an organization is one of the sweetest prizes,” Hidinger-Kendrick said.

The honor is bestowed on an individual or organization whose work in the realm of food has improved the lives of others and benefited society at large. As with previous James Beard Humanitarian of the Year recipients José Andrés, Denise Cerreta, Emeril Lagasse and Charlie Trotter, Giving Kitchen has improved many lives.

It began with one.

In 2012, Hidinger-Kendrick and her husband Ryan were planning to open a restaurant when they faced their own unexpected crisis: Ryan was diagnosed with Stage-4 gallbladder cancer. The Atlanta restaurant community raised nearly $300,000 to help Hidinger, and allowed the couple to continue working toward their dream of opening Staplehouse.

Ryan Hidinger passed away in early 2014, but his legacy lives on. The outpouring of community support laid the foundation for Giving Kitchen and Staplehouse, whose after-tax profits help fund Giving Kitchen programs.

Since its inception in 2013, Giving Kitchen has assisted more than 2,500 food service employees in Georgia, providing more than $2.5 million in financial support and more than 1,000 referrals to community resources.

Giving Kitchen, whose staff is seen here, has served more than 2,500 food service workers in crisis since its inception in 2013, providing more than $2.4 million in financial assistance and more than 1,000 referrals to community resources. CONTRIBUTED BY ERIKA BOTFELD
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The organization has grown quickly. It expanded its grant programs outside the Atlanta-Athens corridor to serve a larger community in the state, including awarding emergency grants to more than 100 restaurant workers on the Georgia coast affected by Hurricane Irma. It formalized its referral network to address social-work-related requests, and hired staff with extensive social work background. It digitized and streamlined its grant application process (and added a Spanish language version), enabling its staff to handle more requests for assistance.

Last month, at its annual Team Hidi fundraiser, Giving Kitchen announced it had broadened its eligibility criteria to the commercial food service field, including catering, concessions and food truck workers. Previously, Giving Kitchen provided assistance only to restaurant workers. The expansion means it will be able to provide stability to 15,000 more members of the state’s food service sector.

About 300,000 people in Georgia work in the food service industry, which equates to roughly 3.5 percent of the state’s population. This year alone, nearly 8,000 food service workers are expected to face falling into poverty due to an unexpected crisis.

“Our promise to the food community is stability,” Schroeder said.

He sat in a private dining room at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna. Joining him were Hidinger-Kendrick and Turner, as well as Turner’s business partners and fellow Giving Kitchen founders, Chris Hall and Todd Mussman. The Beard Foundation had announced Giving Kitchen as its award recipient just a few hours earlier, and the group had assembled to discuss what the accolade meant for the organization.

“The origin of this: We asked Ryan and Jen in their worst hour to help them,” Turner recounted. “They had the courage to say yes. I remember telling them they had no idea the tidal wave of love that was about to flow over them. Four weeks later, we pulled off an 800-person event for Team Hidi. Ryan said of his diagnosis, he considered it a gift. And that he had already won. In that moment, something really shifted for all of us.”

Turner called the work that Giving Kitchen performs “true hospitality in its purest form.”

In the future, Schroeder said the organization will focus on addressing pressing issues in the food service industry: self-care, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse and sexual harassment.

Although Giving Kitchen currently services workers only in Georgia, Schroeder anticipates a time when it expands outside the state. The nonprofit has fielded numerous inquiries from those interested in establishing similar programs to assist food-service workers in their communities, but none has reached Giving Kitchen’s scale of impact. In short, there is no organization like Giving Kitchen in the country.

“Find me one other industry where all the competitors come together to help out their own. And find me a city that has a bigger heart than the restaurant community of Atlanta,” Turner said.

“This is an award for our community,” Schroeder said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.