Food for Thought

This story appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click below to read it in the issue. 

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photography by Brett Falcon

"It was one evening, just on a date night ... And we stumbled on Staplehouse,” says Jennifer (Jen) Hidinger. “Staples, meaning the things that you love and crave, and house, the place you go to get them.” She’s explaining how she and her husband, Ryan Hidinger, came upon the name of their restaurant, slated to open in the spring. She’s standing in the middle of its future home in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of East Atlanta, an old building from 1906 that used to provide overnight lodging for railroad workers; downstairs was a grocery store. It certainly has the makings of a cherished home. The old wood floors and exposed brick walls have an authenticity that tells of actual age, rather than new décor made to look vintage. An outdoor courtyard (where guests will enter) provides a sense of secluded comfort amid Atlanta’s bustling streets just outside the gate. 

The restaurant itself is actually a five-year-old dream, finally coming to fruition. Ryan, a seasoned chef, was well known throughout the Atlanta culinary community. He worked at the city’s acclaimed fine dining restaurant, Bacchanalia, and held the position of sous chef at Floataway Café (both owned by James Beard Award-winning chefs Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano), before ending up at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, Ga., a neighborhood joint that he helped develop into a full-service restaurant. Ryan ran the kitchen there for about seven years, but always knew he wanted his own.

So while seeking funding for a brick-and-mortar locale, the couple decided to build a customer base on their own. “It was January 2009 when we started our underground supper club called Prelude to Staplehouse,” Jen explains. (The trend may have already taken root in places like Seattle or Brooklyn, but in the South, this was well before your average foodies began curating dinner parties for strangers.) Ten guests at a time, almost every Sunday, they welcomed individuals to come and dine in their own home and try Ryan’s food. “We were that couple who just really believed in starting from the grassroots, ground up, and we really allowed people to kind of get to know us very personally,” Jen says. “So inviting them to our home, on that kind of intimate level, was very us.” But there’s another date when the story of Staplehouse, as it is today, really began.

The world may not have ended when the Mayans predicted it would, but for the Hidingers, December 21, 2012 marked a different sort of terminus, and the perceived end of their dream of creating Staplehouse. “That’s kind of when life started to change ... The dream for us stopped ... When you’re told you have six months to live, I mean, what do you do? You don’t, really.”

Jen talks fast, and it’s hard to establish if the speed is a natural quality or a forced one; a strategy for getting through the details of the past two years without allowing the chance for emotion to interrupt. At 35, Ryan was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer of the gallbladder. He was given roughly six months to live. The news not only struck the young couple, but their devoted supper club fans and the larger Atlanta restaurant scene as well. In an outpouring of support, their friends and community came together to form “Team Hidi” (short for their last name) to raise money to assist in funding the care that insurance didn’t cover: like out-of-pocket expenses including medication, travel, co-pays and tumor testing, for starters. “It was headed up by Ryan Turner and Todd Mussman of Muss & Turner’s. And we had a committee of about 20, 25 people, who said we’ve got one purpose in mind and we need to create this event to help them with anything they might need financially during this medical battle,” Jen says, almost matter-of-factly. Within three weeks, the fundraiser was formulated, constructed and produced, ultimately raising $300,000 for the couple.

“So with that, there was an immediate need that was revealed,” she explains. And over the course of the last year, what began as a single fundraiser for a couple in need turned into a nonprofit called The Giving Kitchen, a 501(c)(3) designed to provide hardship grants to workers in Atlanta’s hospitality industry.

Restaurants employ more than 13 million people across the United States, comprising 10 percent of the entire U.S. workforce — and the majority of them live paycheck to paycheck. In Atlanta, — a city that has been privileged with a burgeoning food scene rife with “Top Chefs” and 5-star cuisine — the 200,000 metro area restaurant employees “earn an average annual income of just over $17,000,” TGK’s executive director, Stephanie Galer, tells me. And in an industry built on servicing others (read, tips), you have to show up to get paid.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have insurance — like Angela Riley, the victim of a hit-and-run accident — a crisis situation that takes you out of the workplace for days, weeks, even months at a time, can leave you penniless. In May of 2013, Riley, a server at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Ga., was crossing the street one night when she was struck by the car of a drunk driver, shattering the windshield with her head. “I was 25 at the time and Obamacare had just been extended to cover dependents until they’re 26, so I was on my mother’s health insurance,” Riley explains. “I was very fortunate,” she says, punctuating each syllable as to articulate the severity of her situation. Insurance covered her time in the ICU and several weeks in a rehabilitation facility, where she spent time recovering from fractures in her spine and a severe traumatic brain injury — re-learning how to hold a fork, how to walk, how to talk. But during that time, it was a grant from The Giving Kitchen that afforded her the ability to keep her apartment, her car, a sense of financial stability and the independence she needed to hasten her recovery.

But it’s not just about dire, crisis traumatic brain injuries or stage 4 cancer diagnosis situations. In the past year, for example, The Giving Kitchen has provided grants for a server who needed the funds to cover a security deposit and one month’s rent after the house he was living in was condemned, and another who used the money to purchase a plane ticket so he could participate as a pallbearer in his grandmother’s funeral in Virginia. “It’s literally anything. It’s any sort of unanticipated hardship or crisis, whether it’s natural disaster, death, anything,” Jen asserts.

And then, of course, there’s Staplehouse. After that initial fundraiser, Team Hidi, the Hidingers realized there was both a need for financial assistance in the hospitality industry, and a place for Staplehouse within their new, altruistic mission. “That was, for us, a turning point perspective change that our dream does not necessarily have to die,” Jen says. “We can keep going, we can even keep going in a bigger, better way where we slightly change it conceptually.” In a unique hybrid structure, Staplehouse will be a for-profit subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen. How does that work? Jen explains: “It will still be a standard, structurally run restaurant. It just so happens that now, because we’re owned by a nonprofit, all of our net proceeds and profits after taxes at the end of the year are donated to The Giving Kitchen.”

With Chef Ryan Smith in the kitchen (formerly the executive chef at “Top Chef” judge Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South in Atlanta), Staplehouse will surely be among the best casual fine dining restaurants in the city. (Smith, Jen’s brother-in-law, left ESS to become a partner in Staplehouse at the end of 2013. His wife, and Ryan’s sister, Kara Hidinger — formerly of Abattoir, also owned by Harrison and Quatrano — will serve as general manager.) “[Smith] is one of the most talented, creative individuals in the Southeast for sure, and I think that his career could have gone anywhere. And I still think it can. And I think it will,” Jen says with a passion in her tone that tells you her words aren’t escalated just because he’s family. “But it is interesting to know that you have this platform that you can just literally soar and fly on, but what’s most important to you is a tight-knit family and doing something for the greater good, and he chose to do that. So I think I have a pretty awesome family!” she says, laughing.

While Staplehouse will serve as the ongoing financial engine for The Giving Kitchen, ensuring the sustainability of the nonprofit, there has been no shortage of support from the surrounding culinary community, which started with that initial fundraiser led by the principals of Muss & Turner’s and Chris Hall of Local Three. Dozens of restaurants throughout the city have since held TGK benefit nights and partnered with the organization to raise funds through campaigns such as “Multiply Joy,” which encourages diners to make a donation via a line item on credit card receipts or by cash. Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewery even collaborated with Ryan Hidinger to create a custom beer — 250 barrels of an IPA called “Second Helping” — all proceeds of which (totaling nearly $40,000) went back to TGK. Woodford Reserve also distilled a custom bourbon blend, “The Spirit of The Giving Kitchen,” and Richard Blais’ FLIP Burger restaurants served “The Giving Burger,” both of which donated sales proceeds to the organization.

“We saw what a band of people coming together, what it was able to do to help us with our peace of mind,” Jen remembers. “And I think that’s what The Giving Kitchen is really about.” She goes on to explain how the financial assistance means more than money. For grant recipients, it means relieving the stress of meeting their fiscal responsibilities while they’re unable to work so they can focus on healing and surviving in times of need. “That’s actually what happened for us,” Jen says. “And I know, or what I believe, is that it helped extend Ryan’s life. He was given six months to live and he lasted 13.”

When Ryan Hidinger passed in January of 2014 at the age of 36, he had, in essence, transformed the care of Atlanta’s restaurant industry. And the dream of Staplehouse was fully alive. Ryan and Jen had secured a board of investors — including Ryan Turner, Todd Mussman and Chris Hall — and that 1906 building that will become its home. 

“In many ways, our industry can be archaic and get away from the simple facts of celebrating life. Food is just that — food — but people are the most integral ingredient in a restaurant’s recipe. I certainly am in awe of their mission and use it as a reminder often of why we cook in the first place: to make people happy — ourselves, our staffs and our families — first and foremost.”

“Helping others in the restaurant community goes hand in hand with the passion for making people feel good, and The Giving Kitchen goes even further in its respect for the souls who provide that vision. It has changed the fabric of Atlanta and its focus on helping our own.”

“As a chef and restaurateur, it is super clear that our industry is about passion for what we do; and more often than not, it’s not the most financially rewarding. The Giving Kitchen has filled a void by serving its own in times of need.”

“The restaurant industry spends thousands of hours and dollars each year working for charities. It is part of who we are. Finally, there is an organization that’s for our people in their times of need.”

“It’s an organization built on great intentions, tons of heart and a willingness to work hard to give back. One of the most beautiful things that has happened since The Giving Kitchen was created is a strengthening of the spirits of camaraderie among restaurants in the Atlanta area.”