Jen Hidinger-Kendrick co-founded Giving Kitchen in 2013 after her husband, chef Ryan Hidinger, was diagnosed with cancer. The nonprofit emergency assistance program provides financial assistance to foodservice workers. The foundation is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award for 2019.

Here, Jen shares the story of how it all started and has since evolved.

Photo by Audra Melton

Q: How did Giving Kitchen start?

A: It’s a long story, but one that is very passion-driven. My late husband Ryan was diagnosed with cancer when we had a supper club out of our home and were working on opening a restaurant. He was a chef in town and we worked tirelessly for four years to get our concept into the budding stage of a small mom-and-pop restaurant, which was our dream. All of a sudden, Ryan, who had never been sick a day in his life, in 2012 was diagnosed with stage four gallbladder cancer and given six months to live. Ryan Turner, Chris Hall and Todd Mussman, who were Ryan’s bosses at the time at Muss & Turner, came to our aid and said let us help you. That’s when the idea for a benefit came about so that we could take time for ourselves while Ryan was receiving treatment, and we formulated plans. Three-and-a-half weeks from the date of diagnosis they rallied 850 people from restaurants all over the city, which raised $275,000 to aid in Ryan’s benefit. After that we realized there could be something bigger that could serve our community the same way it served us. Our initial plans for Staplehouse suddenly became very different; we realized we could open a restaurant and use it as a way to financially support our nonprofit. We teamed up with Ryan’s sister, Kara Hidinger, and her husband, Ryan Smith, who is also a chef, and we opened the restaurant a year and a half after Ryan passed away. Ryan Smith continues to serve as chef, while Kara handles operations and service and I handle business management and other administrative tasks.

jen and ryan at home Jason TravisThe late Ryan Hidinger and Jen Hidinger-Kendrick. Photo by Jason Travis

Q: How does Giving Kitchen’s grant program work?

A: The two types of crisis grants we offer include direct grants and matching grants to provide financial assistance to foodservice workers from restaurants, food trucks and concessions or catering who are affected by an illness, injury, death of an immediate family member or a disaster. Direct grants fund basic living expenses such as rent or mortgage and utility bills. Matching grants match funds raised by the foodservice worker’s place of employment.

Q: What is the application process like?

A: We start with a verification process, which includes reviewing current lease and mortgage statements, pay stubs, doctor’s notes and other documentation. Once that application meets our criteria, we will pay up to several months of living expenses, including the rent, utilities and funeral expenses. The neat thing is we don’t pay the individual directly, as this is not a loan, it is a grant for emergency assistance, so we pay the utilities and landlords directly just to make sure we’re dotting our “Is” and crossing our “Ts.”

Q: Tell us about the secondary aspect of Giving Kitchen.

A: The Stability Network is a referral program that connects workers in need of emergency assistance to social services that fit their specific needs, from housing and transportation to medical and mental health to child-care assistance. If we are unable to offer financial assistance, this is just another way we can offer our support. Stability Network also helps foodservice workers dealing with injuries or other circumstances that might take them out of work for upward of half a year. We have partnered with many national, regional and local organizations to make sure our network is as broad as we can get. I believe that we’re all wired for empathy, and that there is a true sense of stability that is created not only when living expenses are covered but also when secondary resources are offered. This is a life-changing service that prevents a downward spiral and goes back to the feeling I had when we were supported.

Q: How much has the organization raised?

A: Since 2013, we have awarded over 1,600 recipients more than $2.5 million through our direct grant program, and if you count all the Stability Network individuals, that number is closer to 2,500 recipients. But it’s not just the individual recipients of the awards we’re trying to help; the majority of the time — over 50 percent — we are helping households with children and making sure there’s a roof over their head and someone to take care of them. Our support goes to many spouses and significant others, including grandparents.

Q: Can you give us some examples of people who have received assistance?

A: They are all difficult stories; just a couple weeks ago we helped an individual facing eviction, which if you don’t know a lot about evictions, they can happen within 24 hours. There have been several instances where families or single parents had to take time off of work for various reasons, including having a baby born prematurely and in the NICU for several months. Another parent in the foodservice industry whose child passed away from cancer was able to use the funds to cover funeral and other expenses.

Q: How do you continue to raise funds?

A: Since our very first benefit, which we call Team Hidi, short for our last name, each year after that has become our largest annual fundraiser. We had our most financially successful event this year at the end of February. It raised $865,000 for the organization and drew 1,200 attendees. About a third of our donations comes from annual fundraising, and we also receive funds from corporate, private and individual donors and we also work with restaurants that might want to give back, such as participating in a day of service with a special cocktail or donating 10 percent of sales for a day.

TeamHidi7Chefs ErikaBotfeldAtlanta-area chefs donate their time to Team Hidi in February, the Giving Kitchen’s largest fundraising event of the year.

Q: How do you balance Giving Kitchen with work at Staplehouse?

A: Staplehouse has become a very different restaurant from what was intended, but my two business partners, with their wealth of experience and knowledge, are extremely important to the success of our business. I spend the majority of my time at the restaurant, but I have a direct line of communication with Giving Kitchen and work on several committees such as the program committee or Team Hidi committee. Our first executive director had an incredible impact on the organization and helped set up the system for success, but our executive director, Bryan Schroeder, came on board about two years ago and has really helped the organization grow in a way that’s more impactful than we ever imagined. We look forward to growing even more.