May 31st, 2013
04:30 PM ET
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Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger passed away in January 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.

More: Aspiring restaurateurs cook up buzz in their home kitchens

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.

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Filed under: Charity • Favorites • News • Restaurants • Underground


soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. 海外仓库

    fantastic publish, very informative. I ponder why the other experts of this sector don't realize
    this. You should continue your writing. I am sure, you have a huge readers' base already!

    October 11, 2014 at 4:00 am |
  2. Coach fitness

    Read this again "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." Power Couple!

    January 29, 2014 at 5:04 pm |
  3. Kris

    I remember reading about the dinner parties, and then about his cancer. I'm so sorry for your loss. :( I wish you all the best and much success!

    January 12, 2014 at 1:37 am |
  4. jen

    The Hidingers are great people loved by many. Rest in peace young Ryan and know you have done something amazing surrounded by family, friends, and associates that care deeply for you

    January 9, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
  5. Michael

    Time will tell

    July 2, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  6. Dusty Johnson

    Not smart at all. How will they even pay the bills? Sometimes you can't help people as much as you want to and you have to wake up from your dreams of being a good person.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  7. Raymond

    I have to reiterate the surprise at the amazing levels of ugliness to be found on the internet. When am I going to learn to stop reading the comments section..when! Before I read the comments, I thought this was just a nice story of some people who had been helped and were paying it forward, who were just passionate about running a restaurant and not really doing it for the money anyway, and who obviously had some way of living day to day. Then of course, I read, and was amazed at how quickly people jump to conclusions about people they have never met.

    To dispel some misconceptions, nobody makes a non-profit to dodge taxes. There is no reason to ever do that. When you are rich, giving to charity can be written off on your taxes and help you look good in the community, but the whole point of dodging taxes is that you have to be paying taxes in the first place. No profit = no taxes. Another misconception, there are plenty of people who live and work for non-profit organizations. I know a few of them. They are not godlike altruistic people, many of them are just like you and me, they get pissed off and grumpy and have "I need a vacation days" just like the rest of us. They are not mother Teresa or princess Diana, they are just people who prefer to go home at the end of the day and feel like they did more then just make money for themselves and some corporation. That is it right there, non-profit work is hard, but it is a kind of escape from the soul sucking drudge of capitalist society. And many of you obviously have been working for too long and have had your souls sucked right from your bodies. You can't understand the motivation to escape from wage slavery, from the never ending greed and rat race. But maybe, just maybe, if you gave them the benefit of the doubt, and entertained the idea that there could just be genuinely, I don't want to say good, maybe just different, people in the world, you might feel good. Think about it, instead of getting bitter and angry and going on about your dark and dreary day, just try to imagine that there is some genuine kindness in the world. It might make that dark moment into a nice, enjoyable, and maybe even memorable one. Go ahead, give it a try..there you are. That's called a smile.

    June 5, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Ryan Texan

      The problem is you are making a false assumption about non-profits. They are often quite lucrative for those who run them. And frequently, the money that goes to the cause is a tiny fraction of the total take.
      So people are jaded about this sort of thing.
      You accuse people of being unnecessarily negative, but then go right to the opposite extreme.
      That doesn't mean that there are not nasty comments, but given that people are having to take the opinion of someone who isn't unbiased, and that there is general mistrust of the media even when it's not an opinion piece, you have to expect at least some questioning of what is presented.
      Having said that, it's pretty low to speak ill of the dead unless you have something personally against them.

      January 10, 2014 at 4:03 pm |
  8. Skip

    Wow – some of these comments... Project much? And – I thought that business was SUPPOSED to take care of charity?

    Look – just because YOU can't even IMAGINE starting a non-profit business that isn't a sleazy get-rich-quick scheme, doesn't mean there aren't GOOD human beings in the world. Added to that – here's a news flash: cynicism does NOT make you smart, and as much as you may enjoy believing in the triumph of evil, not everything is a conspiracy.

    June 4, 2013 at 8:29 am |
  9. Josh

    "... just a few blocks from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr."

    That always makes for really fine eating. I am surprised that Guy Ramsey doesn't have a place there too.

    June 4, 2013 at 7:08 am |
  10. Scott

    It's amazing to me how some people apparently hate everyone. Nothing anyone does is good enough. They assume everyone is crooked. It must be because they can't imagine anyone is different from themselves. I feel sorry for these people they must lead truly miserable lives always looking out for themselves and not caring for their fellow man. Must be very lonely.

    June 3, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Marion Kimsey

      Thumbs up to your opinion.

      January 10, 2014 at 7:12 pm |
  11. Erika Botfeld

    Way to go, Hidinger's! We support your efforts 100% and very much look forward to dining with Staplehouse as soon as doors open up. We wish you all the best of luck!

    June 3, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  12. EaterGonnaEat

    Some of these comments are surprising, but haters gonna hate. More power to you Hidingers and thank you for your example.

    “Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.”

    June 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  13. zandra

    Best wishes to you for good health and your restaurant.

    June 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  14. steve c

    "four years and 200 meals later"... (That is about one meal a week, folks) Donating ALL their profits to an charity THAT THEY RUN..... Jeeze CNN, can you be so stupid as to have bought into, and promoted, a couple of people out to defraud the public into believing that these losers are really out to do good, rather than pad their own pockets? Or are successful restaurant managers? Or have any agenda other than their own self-promotion.

    Boo on CNN for promoting these frauds...!

    June 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • BK

      Jesus Christ you're stupid.

      June 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • TAK

      A moderate amount of skepticism is healthy. Your level of cynicism is anything but.

      June 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • egrinberg

      You raise a good (unintentional) omission on my part: The Hidingers will each be earning a base salary. But minus operating costs, all profits from the restaurant will go directly to their non-profit, the Giving Kitchen. More information on the structure is available here [http://thegivingkitchen.org/].

      June 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • jimmyjames

      Non-profit does not mean you give all your money away. Donating 100% means you give everything away once all expenses are paid that includes your pay. Which by the way, your pay can be 99% percent of the profit.

      June 3, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
      • T Diemer

        Thanks for clearing up a question I had – how are these people going to live – have money for their own expenses – if they give all of the profits to charity. They pay themselves a salary, that's how. I really do not think they pay themselves a huge per centage.

        June 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I think you might be a bit misguided about how both journalism and being a human work.

      Re: journalism – people don't just tell us a story and we post it will-nilly. We do actually investigate sources, fact, check and follow money trails. We have not been defrauded or duped in the slightest.

      Re: being a human being – sometimes people do things to help others, without a whole lot of motive other than making the world better. It is okay if they are kind to themselves along the way, or make it pretty much their profession. It's a damn sight better than doing nothing at all.

      June 5, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • ANNIER

      It must suck to be you....

      January 13, 2014 at 12:47 am |
  15. Miquel

    I thought the Affordable Care Act(ACA, or Obamacare) was going to solve all this. Nancy Pelosi promised us that it did after it was signed, which we had to do in order to know what was actually in the legislation. Why is any of this needed if the ACA was as great as they promised?

    June 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • The Contentious Otter

      You're complaining about legislation that hasn't been fully implemented yet. You're also referring to legislation which House Republicans have sought to block by any means available to them.

      It's stupid and dishonest to complain about something that hasn't even been implemented yet.

      June 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
      • JD

        Everything you said is completely wrong.

        I hope your company announces plans to lay off all workers in two weeks; then I'll lambast you for complaining about it because it hasn't been implemented yet!

        June 3, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • knewagirl

      ACA just means these restaurant workers will be required to purchase health insurance or pay about $6000 extra as a tax penalty for not having insurance – unless they can qualify for state benefits as too poor – which most of them don't. ACA does not provide health insurance at anything resembling affordable cost for a person with a family on minimum wage at least not here in California.

      June 3, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  16. Josh

    I wish this couple all the success and luck in the world!

    The article didn't seem to mention this, but if any readers want to support this endeavor or support the Hidingers, the time is most definitely now. I hate to be a downer, but the long-term prognosis for advanced stage gallbladder cancer is really dismal, with fewer than 1 in 50 people (2%) living out to 5 years after diagnosis.

    June 3, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  17. CW

    Non-profit=tax dodge.

    June 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Dave

      So they should just have made themselves the 1st Church of Food.

      June 3, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • steve c

      SO TRUE ! and don't forget the myth that "grant money" grows on trees, and doesn't come from tax revenue or from corporations that might otherwise have give it it a REAL organization that helps others than themselves..

      June 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • jimmyjames

      Thank you! Set your pay at $1,000,000 a year. Bet that eats up any profit ther may have been.

      June 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Ruby

      Not really CW. No profit means no taxes so there is nothing to dodge. The concept of doing good for others must be beyond the understanding of people like yourself.
      Church=tax dodge if you are really looking for something to vent your hate on.

      June 3, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
      • Raymond

        haha that, exactly that.

        June 5, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • VladT

      Non – Prodit = No stockholders/beholden to special interests.

      I work for a non-profit, and we pay taxes, but the profit is recycled back into the business, as opposed to stockholders/investor interests.
      Non-profits still pay taxes on any money brought in

      January 10, 2014 at 4:36 am |
  18. Angelina

    As a Baker/Pastry Chef, I feel your pain and joy at the same time. I never had insurance from the small business where I used to work, but we were a family that continues to take care of each other. (the bakery went out of business in March this year) Hopefully all your efforts will pay off big time!:) Thank You.

    June 3, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  19. JM

    Thank you.

    May 31, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  20. cary shackelford

    As a chef myself, I raise my glass too you folks. Keep up the good work.

    May 31, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
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