Atlanta’s Giving Kitchen

Moderated by Rick Badie

Sometimes tragedy inspires long-term initiatives to help the broader community. Hence, The Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit devoted to assisting Atlanta restaurant industry employees in their times of need. In our lead column, the organization’s executive director explains its origins and the growth of its mission to help hard-hit workers stay afloat. The other essay deals with food, travel and international volunteerism here and abroad via a nonprofit aptly named Go Eat Give.

Giving a piece of mind

By Stephanie Harvey Galer

At a time the closing of restaurants is the top news story, it is vital to recognize the magnitude of these developments to Atlanta’s working people. This hardworking and often underinsured segment comprises 10 percent of the U.S. workforce and is the backbone of the nation’s $709 billion restaurant industry.

There are more than 200,000 restaurant workers in metro Atlanta. There is no denying Atlanta’s seat at the national table of top food cities, but it is the generosity and camaraderie of our restaurant community that makes it a rare gem in an industry known for fierce competition and larger-than-life egos.

This industry is notoriously philanthropic. Its members donate wine dinners, gift certificates for school auctionsand catering for various causes — in addition to the “pass-the-hat” internal fundraising they do to help their own. The recent restaurant closings inspired donations, job postings, free meals and pop-up events. This outpouring of support is a longstanding tradition in the service industry.

The Giving Kitchen is the formalized safety net of support that has always existed within this extended family for those who sacrifice their holidays and family time to make special events memorable.

The Giving Kitchen was inspired by the outpouring of love and support when Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with Stage 4 gall bladder cancer in December 2012. Ryan was well known for his work at Bacchanalia and Muss & Turner’s. The Staplehouse supper club started from his Grant Park home, gearing up to open as a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Ryan and his wife Jen built a network of loyal followers, but they never imagined the extraordinary goodwill that would immediately follow Ryan’s diagnosis. More than 50 of the city’s top restaurants raised $250,000 for Ryan’s care. Together with industry leaders, including the principals of Muss & Turner’s and Local Three, the Hidingers committed to lending a helping hand to others in times of need.

The Giving Kitchen was formed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to fill the need for a crisis grant program for restaurant workers — as a way to do for others what the community came together to do for the Hidingers. Since Ryan’s passing in January 2014, the nonprofit has experienced exponential growth. It has evolved from a small group of passionate people with a unique idea, to a successful organization that has provided emergency assistance grants to those facing unanticipated crises.

Qualified emergencies can range from injury or accident to fire or death of an immediate family member. This fund has distributed more than $550,000 to cover basic living expenses for more than 325 workers, providing financial, mental and physical peace of mind. After an application process, financial review and proof of need, funds are distributed directly to housing and utility vendors.

Recent recipients include a dishwasher who broke his arm in a car accident; a line cook who was robbed at gunpoint on his way home from work; a bartender who broke two bones in his leg; and a server who experienced a catastrophic fire while seven months pregnant, losing all of her belongings. These grants were made possible by generous support from not just the restaurants but from vendors, suppliers, distributors and diners.

What started at Ryan and Jen’s dining room table has evolved into The Giving Kitchen and now Staplehouse — their dream restaurant in the Old Fourth Ward. Helmed by Chef Ryan Smith (formerly of Empire State South), the restaurant is a for-profit subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen; 100 percent of its net profits will be channeled back to TGK as an ongoing stream of support.

As if Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen weren’t enough, Ryan Hidinger’s greatest legacy was that of a lighthouse, shining light upon the kindness and compassion of this remarkable community. That legacy shines brightest at times like these, when we are able to serve those who serve us.

Stephanie Harvey Galer is executive director of The Giving Kitchen.

A love for food, travel

Sucheta Rawal

The idea of Go Eat Give came mostly from friends well versed with my love for food and travel. They asked me to share my experiences and help them plan their trips, where they could also have meaningful travel experiences like mine. I founded Go Eat Give as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2011, with a mission to raise awareness of different cultures through food, travel and community service.

Go Eat Give organizes sustainable tours to different countries, including India, Indonesia, Cuba, Italy, Mexico, Belize and Tanzania. Travelers can learn about the culture, taste authentic food, meet people and give back. Expect to stay in a 4-star boutique resort where all the employees live in surrounding areas, take cooking lessons with a native chef, get lessons in Batik painting or salsa dancing from local artists, eat at people’s homes and volunteer with a grassroots local nonprofit. I call it a study abroad program for adults, packed in one week.

Go Eat Give is very different from the Peace Corps and mission trips because it emphasizes “vacationing” as well. We offer our guests a chance to relax and enjoy their time off, but also want them to step out of their comfort zone a little bit.

We like to work with small organizations that often don’t have a voice in their own cities. Some projects we support include sponsoring children to go to school in Bali, fulfilling wishes and providing wigs to kids suffering from cancer in Mexico City, conducting workshops for women at a safe house in India, and farming at an organic cooperative in Cuba.

The impact of these activities is felt long after our short visits; travelers continue to support programs by sharing information and sending donations. Once you have seen the schools and homes of the kids and made memories laughing and playing with them, you are more likely to open your wallets to help with their education.

People who have been on Go Eat Give trips have had life-altering experiences. They have returned with a different outlook on life, and decided to consume less, give back more and be grateful for what they have. You can’t be disappointed about not having that big-screen TV or six-figure income after making friends with those who live without electricity, running water and unlimited supplies of food.

Soon after I started the travel programs, I realized most Americans couldn’t afford an international trip every year because of time and financial restrictions. So we started organizing Destination Dinners, where we bring other countries to Atlanta. Each month, we focus on one country and introduce people to its cuisine, art, music, culture, tourism and current events. Since their inception, we have done 40 such programs, attended by more than 3,000 people.

We have much diversity in Atlanta but don’t always know how to experience it. Even as you and I drive down Buford Highway, we don’t know which Korean or Bangladeshi restaurant is the best, what would we order once we walk in and if the dishes taste like they would back in the country. Through the Destination Dinner program, diners get exposed to ethnic restaurants around the city and can taste practically everything off the menu. Then they hear a presentation from an ambassador, native or community leader, watch live dance or a musical performance, and mingle with other international residents.

Think of it as a dinner out, lecture, show and networking event, all rolled into one evening.

Our vision is simple, yet powerful: To build strong, meaningful relationships between citizens of different nationalities, races, religions and backgrounds. By learning how people live and what they believe in and value, participants are able to create their own opinions and eliminate previous stereotypes and bigotry.

Sucheta Rawal is founder/executive director of Go Eat Give.

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