Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger passed away Thursday after a year-long battle with cancer that inspired a non-profit dedicated to supporting members of Atlanta’s hospitality industry. Over the years, Eatocracy had the good fortune of spending time Ryan and Jen Hidinger through their culinary endeavors; first, in their Grant Park home for their Staplehouse supper club; and in 2013, when the Hidingers launched the Giving Kitchen, a non-profit that supports members of the culinary community who encounter unexpected financial hardship.
The Giving Kitchen will be funded in part by a brick-and-mortar restaurant slated to open in 2014.
Ryan and Jen Hidinger have welcomed hundreds of strangers into their Atlanta home, 10 people at a time, for the supper club inaugurated as Staplehouse in 2009.
With each five-course meal, the husband-wife team built a devoted and diverse fanbase while Ryan Hidinger, a chef by trade, honed his skills in the kitchen and Jen Hidinger got a crash course in restaurant management.
Four years and nearly 200 meals later, the Hidingers are one step closer to their dream of opening a restaurant. They finally have a space in Atlanta’s Old 4th Ward, just a few blocks from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also have a unique model that guarantees they’ll never get rich off the venture. Instead, 100% of profits from Staplehouse restaurant will go to a non-profit the couple started that supports members of the culinary community who encounter unexpected financial hardship.
After all, that’s the situation the Hidingers found themselves in about six months ago. Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer in December, bringing the couple’s life and Staplehouse to a screeching halt. But, as is often the case in the food world, Atlanta’s culinary community rallied to raise money for his treatment. Servers in the city’s restaurants wore “Team Hidi” T-shirts. Some restaurants added an extra line to credit card receipts for donations, while others donated a portion of nightly profits to the couple and held benefit dinners.
The outpour of support fully funded Ryan Hidinger's treatment and related expenses, which were only partially covered through his employer’s insurance. It also left the Hidingers with a renewed sense of purpose: If they’re going to open a restaurant, it’s truly now or never.
“With the disease and sickness, it’s obviously a different pair of glasses to put on. You get sick, you realize how short life is, you realize that you have an opportunity to do something really cool,” Ryan Hidinger said in an interview in Staplehouse’s future home, a two-story brick building that will also serve as headquarters of their non-profit, The Giving Kitchen.
Staplehouse will be a not-for-profit, charter-run restaurant with a mandate that all profits go to charity. Or, as the Hidingers have taken to saying, Staplehouse will be “the first modern farm-to-table restaurant backed by award-winning chefs that will never make a single cent.”
“Instead of just coming to work to feed people and create a unique dining experience, we’re going to help others,” Ryan Hidinger said.
Their journey is the latest example of how the culinary community acts fast to help those in need, especially as the couple moves forward with their purpose-driven restaurant. It also highlights the extent to which restaurant staff still suffer from limited access to health insurance and employer-sponsored benefits.
Almost 90% of 4,000 restaurant workers surveyed between 2003 and 2010 reported not receiving health insurance through their employer and 61.5% reported not having insurance at all, according to a 2010 Restaurant Opportunities Center report.
In many ways, restaurants are no different than other small businesses that struggle with the costs of insurance, said Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder and co-director of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a national organization dedicated to improving wages and working conditions for the restaurant workforce.
Restaurants that find a way to work insurance into their business plan enable employees to support themselves and their families and lead healthier lives, increasing their productivity and lowering turnover, Jayaraman said.
“It is an investment for sure in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are great,” Jayaraman said.
“What’s wrong right now is big restaurant corporations have set up an industry culture and standards that are very hard for smaller businesses to compete with,” she said. “Smaller businesses are at a disadvantage.”
The Hidingers know how lucky they are to be insured through Ryan’s employer, Muss & Turners, but it still didn’t cover out-of-pocket expenses, such as medication, travel, co-pays and tumor testing. That is where the efforts of Team Hidi proved invaluable - not only in making up the difference but in guiding them toward their new vision.
It’s been tough, especially as chemo continues on a weekly basis amid business meetings and strategy sessions, Jen Hidinger said. They probably would not have made it this far without the encouragement of family, friends and the community, she added.
“It was truly that motivation and inspiration from others that allowed us to see the options we had,” she said. “We feel very fortunate that we were able to choose this path.”
Anyone who has ever been to a charity dinner or auction has experienced the service industry’s altruistic tradition. It’s almost ironic, given the small margins that the industry operates under to prepare and serve a single meal. But it also makes sense, considering it’s an industry that feeds people for a living.
“It just speaks to the core of what we’re about in terms of hospitality and what it means to cook for people every day,” said chef Marco Canora, owner of Hearth restaurant and Terroir wine bars in New York. “We find satisfaction in the idea of feeding people and connecting with people, regardless of how small the margins are.”
Hearth hosted its first dinner in 2012 to benefit A Life Story Foundation, whose mission is to raise awareness of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's. For Canora and the Hearth family, it was personal. Former Hearth server Kevin Swan (who founded A Life Story) and legendary chef Gerry Hayden had both recently been diagnosed with ALS. The dinner was not just a fundraiser but an opportunity to bring together friends for food, drink and merriment.
In other words, never underestimate the power of a good party.
That’s not the only way the culinary community helps out in times of need. When Hurricane Sandy struck New York, the New York City Food Truck Association mobilized to bring food to areas cut off from food and resources. When a tornado devastated Moore, Oklahoma, this month, Operation BBQ Relief was on the scene feeding people plates of brisket and ribs.
There are countless more examples. After all, it’s part of a restaurant’s work to contribute to the community it belongs to, just like any good neighbor or business owner, Canora said.
“If you want to grow deep roots in the neighborhood you’re in, you can’t be some miserly business that’s only looking out for your own interests,” he said.
The Atlanta dining scene has grown in the past five years thanks to a number of new small chef-run restaurants that embody that philosophy of setting down roots in the community, said Ryan Smith, executive chef of Atlanta’s Empire State South restaurant, a Team Hidi supporter.
It’s not that restaurant owners are evil, Smith said. Margins in the business are tight and insurance is expensive, which is why the Giving Kitchen would be providing a much-needed service, he said.
The award-winning chef has so much faith in the venture that he decided to leave his post at Empire State South later this year to devote himself full-time to Staplehouse as a chef and partner in operations.
“It’s really about being part of something bigger than I could ever wrap my head around,” he said. “I’ve always been an advocate for building a sense of community between chefs and people in the industry but now it’s even more than that. It’s about the community in general.”
It’s also about family for Smith, who is engaged to Ryan Hidinger’s sister, Kara Hidinger. The two met at a Staplehouse event in 2010. She is also leaving her job as general manager of Atlanta’s renowned Abbatoir restaurant to manage Staplehouse.
“Opening Staplehouse has always been the goal but now this gives it greater significance and focus in our lives,” Kara Hidinger said. “Our lives are based in this community, how we live and work and eat and relate to one another, we’re bringing all that energy to this restaurant.”
For years, the couple has wanted to open Staplehouse the restaurant in this space, which was built in 1906 as grocery store with a second-floor residence. But life seemed to get in the way and there was always some reason that kept them from going forward, until now.
Much like the dining area in the Hidingers’ home, restaurant guests will be able to sit at a bar that looks into an exposed kitchen.
“I always wanted it to be an extension of what it was in our house,” Ryan Hidinger said. “We wanted it to feel like a comfortable neighborhood joint that just happened to be as good as anywhere else in town.”
“Or better,” Jen Hidinger added.