‘Christmas Miracle’ caps a year of giving

Dec 20, 2017

Right now, there’s a restaurant worker in Atlanta breathing a sigh of relief. That’s because he just received a check from the Giving Kitchen to help pay for a few unexpected bills.

Actually, his is just one of 413 cases handled to date this year by the staff at the Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to restaurant workers. The grant recipient (who cannot be named because of privacy reasons) also happens to be the organization’s 1,000th grant recipient in its five-year span as economic fairy godmother to restaurant employees facing unforeseen financial burdens.

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” said development and partnerships director Naomi Green.

Ligaya Figueras is the AJC's food and dining editor and lead restaurant critic. Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Green’s happy explanation in mid-December was the day that I sat down with the eight-person Giving Kitchen staff at their office in Inman Park to learn about 2017 milestones and uplifting moments. It was the same date that the check got mailed. They were all smiles.

The Giving Kitchen, often referred to by its acronym, TGK, has worked miracles pretty much every day since its inception in 2013, one that was inspired after an outpouring of support when Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. The community raised nearly $300,000 to help Hidinger meet his medical and other needs. He died in 2014.

This year alone, TGK has given away nearly $600,000 in grant money and anticipates responding to even more calls for help in 2018. But the group is poised to feed future needs.

Part of that is due to the overwhelmingly positive response from the Atlanta community, be it from restaurants that partner with the nonprofit for fundraising, or diners who open their pocketbook to attend such events. Those events include TGK’s upcoming annual fundraiser, Team Hidi, a food-fest and auction slated for Jan. 28 that has already sold out, despite the hefty $175 ticket price.

But there have been other mile markers for the organization this year, such as the expansion of its grant programs outside the Atlanta-Athens corridor to serve a larger restaurant community in the state. In particular, when Hurricane Irma left disaster and destruction on the Georgia coast, TGK responded by helping more than 100 coastal restaurant workers, dishing out $500 grants to all eligible applicants.

People who suddenly face economic hardship sometimes have other challenges, be it a death, a medical or mental health problem, or some other setback. TGK has formalized its referral network, called Safety Net, and is now poised to address social-work-related requests, ones that the staff fields from coast to coast and as far away as Canada.

It has formed a close partnership with Nashville-based Children of Restaurant Employees, or CORE, which provides grants to support children of food and beverage service workers dealing with life-altering circumstances. It also recently hired as its program manager Adriona Isom, whose background and training in social work will enable the organization to better provide professional assistance for incoming requests.

The staff at the Giving Kitchen. From left to right: Jen Hidinger, Bryan Schroeder, Mitzi Lewis, Naomi Green, Kristie Azaroff, Adriona Irom, Amanda Newsom and Leah Melnick. Photo: Ligaya Figueras / AJC

As I listened to the voices of TGK staff gathered around the table, one especially resonated. It was that of Jen Hidinger, widow of Ryan Hidinger and co-founder and spokesperson for TGK. She wanted to sing the praises of the team, commend their dedication and the spark of leadership under the direction of TGK’s executive director, Bryan Schroeder, who joined the organization this past May.

But stalwart Hidinger deserves credit of her own. This summer, she got it when the Atlanta Braves, in partnership with FOX Sports South, honored her with a Community Hero Award for the work she has done in supporting local restaurant workers in a tough spot.

Jen Hidinger of Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen teams up with Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to hand out free hot dogs at the Ponce City Market on June 19, 2017, in Atlanta. The Braves honored Hidinger with a Community Hero Award. Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

While the do-good efforts of these folk behind the lines might touch your heart, it is the stories of the people they’ve helped that will bring on a tear or two.

Stories like that of Alex Blanco. When the winds of Hurricane Irma blew through Atlanta, Blanco was on the clock, managing a café in Atlanta. Frantic calls from his wife informed him that a couple of trees had crashed into their apartment, with her and the couple’s 1-year-old baby inside.

Alex Blanco is one of more than 400 Georgia restaurant workers assisted in 2017 by The Giving Kitchen. Photo: Photo courtesy of Alex Blanco

His wife, who was six months pregnant at the time, suffered a fractured foot. The apartment was left uninhabitable. A TGK grant enabled them to put down a deposit on another apartment, purchase new furnishings and pay for his wife’s medical expenses.

The couple’s baby was due last week. Talk about a Christmas miracle.

There is also the Thanksgiving moment brought by Judith Winfrey, owner of local meal delivery service PeachDish, who contacted TGK wanting to give a few of the organization’s grant recipients a present in the form of a ready-to-cook Thanksgiving dinner. Thanks to Winfrey, in partnership with TGK, 24 Atlanta families got stuffed with turkey and all the fixins’.

The TGK team is in the trenches every day. And sometimes, news of the effect of their good work takes a while to get back to them. Like when they learned only this year about the impact of a grant awarded two years ago. It was Trish Smith, general manager and baker at Southern Sweets Bakery, who let them know that funds given to help Nancy Cole, the restaurant co-owner stricken with cancer, had enabled the family not only to work through the crisis, but to continue to give paychecks to their employees during the hard time.

Story after story after story.

TGK’s exec director Schroeder had one more happy tale before I left. It was one from TGK board member Ryan Turner, a partner at Muss & Turner’s and Local Three Kitchen & Bar. To paraphrase: He wishes he could pour an ice-cold beer over Ryan Hidinger’s head to celebrate the 1,000th grant because it’s something Ryan would be proud of.