When there’s a catering job at Gathering Industries, it’s all hands on deck. Alex Reethof (center), co-founder of Gathering Industries, works in their commercial kitchen with Amber West, director of operations. (HaydnCorine Media)
Photo: HaydnCorine Media
Photo: HaydnCorine Media

In Atlanta, first-rate food leads to second chances

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series that explores culinary-related initiatives benefiting Atlanta’s homeless. Look for Part 2 next week. 

Work starts early for those at Gathering Industries. Each weekday morning before 7 a.m., Ryan Williams opens the kitchen on McDonough Boulevard, just a block from the United States Penitentiary. He likes sports analogies and if you ask for a job title, he says he’s a “utility player.”

“I leave the cooking to the professionals,” he says.

His uniform is a Gathering Industries T-shirt.

Those who work at Gathering Industries wear a T-shirt that summarizes their mission: gathering can change lives. (HaydnCorine Media)
Photo: HaydnCorine Media

Gathering Industries was started in 2013 by two chefs, Alex Reethof and Lake Dawson. Reethof will tell you their primary business is catering and making sandwiches and salads for their boxed-lunch clients. But perhaps their real primary business is giving people a second chance, using culinary training to provide job, life and management skills.

“Hope. Dignity. Self-sufficiency.” That’s what they hope to offer those who work with them. It is “Gathering Industries” because they wanted a place where folks could gather to create that second chance.

Williams is the first one at work each day because he likes to be the one to set things up. As morning goes on, he will keep things clean — washing every pot, pan and utensil — and helping pack deliveries. He is always looking for ways to help. His pride in being a valued part of the team is unmistakable.

The kitchen is in the basement of a 1957 church building and it’s small, about 400 square feet. There’s a six-burner stove that looks as if it belongs in a Waffle House. A walk-in cooler, a grill, a big stainless steel table and some open shelving complete the list of equipment. A white board lists the orders for the next day: six steak salads, four chef salads, 10 Hen Pen sandwiches (roast chicken breast, roasted vegetable schmear, Muenster and romaine served on a pain de mie onion roll) and more.

There are no shortcuts for preparing the quality food they deliver. Each morning they roast the chicken breasts for that Hen Pen sandwich and vegetables for the Veggie Blast. They grill flat iron steaks for their steak sandwiches and salads, and mix up big logs of dough to be baked into luscious Smores Kellogg Crunch and Confetti Sugar cookies.

Gathering Industries makes individually wrapped sweet treats such as (left to right) power bars, brownies and cookies that are sold through wholesale customers, including Java Cats Cafe on Memorial Drive. (HaydnCorine Media)
Photo: HaydnCorine Media

And there are no shortcuts in the way they care for the people in the program.

Terrance Mouzon commutes to the kitchen from Decatur. When I met him in late June he had been with the program six weeks. Recently released from jail, he told me he was not really thinking about a job in the culinary field. But he was enjoying what he was learning about cooking so he could share that knowledge with his family. And he’s gaining other skills that will be even more important.

Gathering Industries finds its customers in any number of ways, many of which depend on personal connection to Reethof. Mercy Care learned about their box lunches through Sister Angela Ebberwein, one of Reethof’s fellow members of the board of Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center.

Jill Rome of Phoenix Excess Risk Underwriters met Reethof while working as a volunteer assistant during one of his cooking classes at Cook’s Warehouse. “Gathering Industries’ mission is a match of our company’s interest in philanthropy and working with the homeless. They’ve been bringing in box lunches and we had them cater the company’s Thanksgiving dinner. The food is fabulous.”

Aileen Bleach says Eversheds Sutherland found Gathering Industries was a good match. “Workforce development and the prevention of homelessness are two things at the core of our corporate responsibility efforts. Now we’ve made them a preferred provider, asking our staff to consider using them whenever they need to order lunch.”

Cindy Beaman says Whitehead & Associates found a match as well. “Our company owner believes in grace and second chances. We want to see people thrive and we share that value with Gathering Industries. And the food is so good. That’s what’s great about it.”

Terrance Mouzon of Decatur doesn’t think he’ll turn to baking as a career. But learning to make Gathering Industries standards such as scones and power bars teaches him the importance of teamwork and taking pride in a job well done. (HaydnCorine Media)
Photo: HaydnCorine Media

Watching everyone prepare the meals for the day, it doesn’t take long to see that slapdash methods won’t fly in this kitchen. Amber West, in charge of operations, makes sure the working area is constantly picked up and tools are handled properly. They make lemon-blueberry scones and mix up power bars.

There’s a palpable sense of being aware of one’s surroundings and of being respectful of one another. As the mise en place containers are used, the empties are neatly stacked and sent to Williams for cleaning. The stainless steel table is wiped down, and the kitchen is ready for the next recipe.

Reethof says one of the reasons people like working there is that he and West are always looking to catch people doing good. Williams has a weekend job with a major grocery chain, but he says it’s the caring attitude in the Gathering Industries kitchen that makes this job the one he looks forward to each week. Williams is working his way out of homelessness.

“Lake and I were doing this on a small scale at Ignatius House, bringing on people from Atlanta Mission and Gateway Center, giving them jobs and training. These folks were flourishing and we wanted to do the same thing but bigger,” says Reethof.

Gathering Industries’ box lunch program gives employees a chance to develop skills in cooking top-quality proteins and vegetables, and to learn the importance of presentation. (HaydnCorine Media)
Photo: HaydnCorine Media

At first they planned to open a restaurant, but eventually decided they would do better just providing kitchen experience. Front-of-the-house was not something they needed to tackle.

He describes providing job skills as filling up a toolbox for the men who work there. (Right now, there are no women in the program.) “The longer they’re here, the more skills we can give them, whether it’s using equipment like a meat slicer or a Robot Coupe, or life skills like how to work with others. It can be simple things, but they’re important.”

Gathering Industries finds its employees through referrals from groups such as Atlanta Mission, which works with the homeless, and HeartBound Ministries, which works with those in the prison community. Because Mouzon was just out of jail, for example, it was tough for him to find a job. “He can come to work with us, and then we can vouch for him, be a reference,” Reethof said.

In their four years of operation they’ve trained 32 people, many of whom have gone on to jobs in the culinary industry. “Many are doing pretty well, but some aren’t. Many, but not all, have addiction issues, and it’s heartbreaking when they go back to heroin or whatever they were doing.”

Reethof doesn’t give up on them, continuing to stay in touch when possible and encouraging them in finding jobs, in going back to school, in getting clean — whatever is needed to get back on track.

He knows there are opportunities for their employees, as every week he gets calls from friends in the business who are looking for someone to hire.

“We bring on people who are already clean and sober and off the streets. We’re looking for the ones who want a second chance. If we can grow our program, we can train more. And to grow our catering and box lunch operation, we’ll need a bigger kitchen.”

Reethof says one of the things they talk about nearly every day is integrity and what they call its four pillars — reliability, restraint, respect and responsibility. “We try to incorporate that in all we do. It’s how we all make good decisions. And I’m pretty sure most employers don’t talk about that. I sure didn’t before I started doing this.”

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.