Dana Delivers: Giving Back to Food Service Workers in Need

August 28, 2022

Ever noticed the lack of options food service workers have when they face a catastrophe like a broken limb or a house fire? In today’s episode of Dana Delivers, Jen Hidinger Kendrick, co-founder of Giving Kitchen, talks about the beginning of the organization, who and how it helps, and how listeners can contribute to the cause – financially or otherwise. Jen also touches on the importance of community, especially to Giving Kitchen’s mission.

Show Notes:

Welcome to Dana Delivers by Aprio podcasts, the podcast that helps restaurant owners and operators learn from industry experts about trends and opportunities. On every episode, Dana Zukofski, the leader of Aprio’s restaurant advisory team, explores a topic impacting our industry in a candid conversation. And now, let’s hear what Dana is serving up on this episode.


On today’s podcast, we have Jen Hidinger Kendrick who is the co-founder and senior director of community engagement for Giving Kitchen. So Jen, first and most importantly, thank you so much for joining us today. And I can’t wait for everyone to hear a little bit more about you and Giving Kitchen and all the great stuff happening.

Oh, Dana, thank you so much. It is my pleasure. I love storytelling, especially when it involves my greatest passion, which is Giving Kitchen and our mission of helping food service workers. So I really appreciate this so much from you.

My pleasure. So I always like to start my podcast with the first time I met somebody. And even though Jen and I have not met in real life, my first time and my first experience with Giving Kitchen really was just so moving, so I’m going to share that instead. When I joined Aprio back in April, the big event for Giving Kitchen is Team Hidi.

Short for our last name of Hidinger.

Yeah, right. And it was the 10 year anniversary, and I went to this event and having been to a lot of events for a lot of different charities, I just kept walking around, just blown away by how amazing the event was, and how amazing the people were and just the different stories you heard. So again, Jen, I look forward to next year’s event and hopefully meeting you in person before but that event was just fantastic. So thank you so much.

My pleasure. My goodness, it is so nice to hear because for us, I think the success is celebration and people coming together and common purpose and mission and it makes me feel good that you felt included in such a big, monumental moment for Giving Kitchen’s history.

And you gave a great T-shirt out, which I wear a lot. Jen, why don’t we start this way? So why don’t you talk a little bit about you and your background and how Giving Kitchen actually got started because they’re so intertwined.

Absolutely, it really is. So Giving Kitchen really came to be out of community response and you speak a little bit to celebrating number 10 of Team Hidi, which is Giving Kitchen’s signature tasting event or signature fundraiser, but really how it started was that my late husband, Chef Ryan Hidinger, was a chef here in Atlanta. We’re actually both from Indianapolis, Indiana originally and moved to Atlanta in late 2004. And he ended up, a few years into us living here, finding a home at a sandwich shop up in the northern Atlanta area in Smyrna, Georgia called Muss & Turner’s.

Wait, Jen, I have to tell you, I’m sorry to interrupt. When I came to Atlanta on that same visit, I forgot to tell you this, I ate there. And my friends, Stephanie and Omar took me and they’re like, ‘you have to try this place.’ And we went, and I think I’ve been back on every single visit.

That is awesome. 

They are so good. 

Yes, right? It is. And that’s great because it started as a sandwich shop and they still produce some of the best sandwiches. Those owners know what they’re doing for sure. And that’s wonderful that you’ve been back because Ryan, my late husband, actually started off in fine dining. And when he found his way to Muss & Turner’s he really wanted to learn the business aspect of restaurant tourism and found his home there under the owners and founders, Ryan Turner and Chris Hall and Todd Mussman. And it was a way for him to learn the business in a whole new way, because of what we were doing in our own home, which was we had started a supper club out of our home. We wanted to open up a restaurant of our own one day in the future. 

So we flash forward a little bit a few years from then 2008 to 2012, when we were hosting these dinners, and all of a sudden, in December of 2012, Ryan got really sick. He had never missed a day of work in his life. This was a guy who’s just never got sick, very well-respected and admired in his industry, and just really beloved here in our community, was just a really respectable human. And he got sick and it ended up leading to an ultrasound that led to an MRI. And then on December 21, of 2012, we were told by an oncologist that he had stage four gallbladder cancer and was given a terminal cancer diagnosis of six months. And for us, it was really just, clearly, a very pivotal turning point in our lives with what we were hoping to create out of our home, he and I,  and somebody just kind of really giving a sentence for the rest of your life. It was a pivotal life change for us. 

And what happened, as I stated a little earlier was, this community response. We really kind of changed our outlook on humanity and what people could do when they come together with a common purpose. It was his bosses and mentors and some of our nearest and dearest best friends in the industry and otherwise who came together and ended up putting an event together called Team Hidi. The very first year it was put on ended up happening three and a half weeks after his terminal cancer diagnosis. So if you can imagine 850 people, live auction lots, a band, and food and beverage from all over the city, about 40 participating food and bartenders came together in three and a half weeks’ time. You can imagine what that might mean. You just kind of have to be somebody who is really well-respected and humbled for that to happen. And it was remarkable. That evening changed our lives and ended up raising $275,000 for this one guy, this one couple. And from there, it’s really this light bulb moment of there was nothing really for this food service industry, the restaurant community, in their time of need, when something like a either a catastrophic medical diagnosis occurs or severed tendon from a broken wineglass at work, when somebody’s out of work because of an injury or illness or otherwise, that didn’t exist. That’s the moment Giving Kitchen was born, was community response and seeing a need.

Wow. And really, I hear the story, and every time I still get the chills. It’s just amazing how, as an industry, and I guess, arguably, restaurants are the second largest industry in the country, and there’s so many people in it, and just how much we really rely on each other and need each other and how great organizations like you guys are. So tell me a little bit about how it works. So now you guys, you did this first event, and now you realize there’s a need for more people to get involved. So how did Giving Kitchen formalize?

Well, it was really based off us learning about what was happening in our immediate purview. Giving Kitchen started inside metro Atlanta, and we started serving full service restaurant workers. And the way we did that was if we heard of somebody who was affected by an illness, again, catastrophic medical diagnosis to something else, to an injury, car accident, a breaking or cutting open a separate tendon from behind the bar to the death of an immediate family member or housing disaster, like a flood or a fire. That’s really what we started serving in those early years. 

After doing that, we really started to listen to those clients that we were serving and realized that they needed so much more than just financial aid to get them through. And we ended up building what we call a Stability Network program. So what Giving Kitchen is today is we serve food service workers. So we’ve really, over the past nine and a half years, went from all of food service, food service being defined as anybody in concessions, catering, food trucks, full service, quick service, or bar rooms or tap rooms are defined as food service workers. And we can help them through those four qualifying crises, illness, injury, death of a family member or housing disaster with financial aid, helping them pay their rent and their utilities, making sure those lights are on, the water is running, and there’s food in the refrigerator. And then as a stability kind of option, we also, again, have Stability Network, which is a connection to local resources for a food service worker anywhere in the United States really. We are concentrating our efforts right now in the southeast, but we can really help anybody throughout the United 50 states right now.

Right. And I think what’s amazing is when someone reaches out to you, or you hear about someone, and they have a problem, and they need some financial resources, what I thought was fantastic is how you have this network. So if someone has a utility bill that needs to get paid, you’re not giving money to Dana Zukofski, who needs it. You’re really going to call the utility provider and work with them because of the relationships. How, I mean, could you just tell our audience, people who might not be familiar with the process, how that works? Because to me, that’s amazing.

Yeah, I think so too. We really have to follow some strict guidelines in order to be able to tell really clear, compelling, concise stories to make sure that all food service workers know we’re here. And the way we do that is to, we do, we pay either the landlord or the mortgage holder or the power company, the water company directly. We’ll never issue a check directly to the client, because it really is a matter of making sure that the people who need the assistance at the time that they need it, at the time of a crisis are really able to get back on their feet at a time when it feels good to them, when it’s right for them. But really, it’s about getting them back on their feet and back into the swing of life, getting them out of that potential poverty. I will say that based off the financial assistance clients that Giving Kitchen serves, what we do is we take pre and post survey results about mental health and then just about where they are mentally before and after the crisis has occurred. And I’ll talk a little bit about how someone can get to Giving Kitchen as well. But with these surveys, we have learned that through our financial assistance clients that roughly 70% of them will say that we’ve helped them from becoming homeless. Seventy-Two percent (72%) will say that we’ve helped prevent a late fee on one or more bills by us being able to step in and offer this financial aid or other resources.

I mean, that’s amazing, because those are the fees that could hurt the most, right? The interest payments and the late fees and all of that adding up.

Absolutely. I mean, on average, we’re actually saving, gosh, I think it’s like $1.65 for every dollar that goes out to somebody. It’s really $1.65 that we’re saving from late fees, credit card, debt payments, so on and so forth. So it’s a pretty big scale of which we’re going down. For a food service worker to ask for help, we try to make it really simple as well through our website, givingkitchen.org. There’s an ask for help button and there’s an intake form, it’s pretty easy to fill out. The food service worker can fill it out themselves, or someone on their behalf. And I will say ‘somebody on their behalf’ happens a lot. Because oftentimes, when somebody is in crisis, you’re not thinking about, ‘oh, what organization is out there that can help pay my rent?’, because you don’t even know they exist. But somebody else can really start that process for someone as long as we collect the doctor bills or the police statement about the fire, whatever it might be.That’s all unbelievable. I think a lot of the people who listen to this podcast are restaurant owners or operators. So if someone that they know who’s working for them or with them is having a problem, I love the idea that they could start the process. Because to your point, the worker who ripped their tendon on the wineglass, they just might not know you exist. But if the owners do, then they can help pass the information along as well.

Exactly, exactly. 

What are some of the other ways, again, if most of the people listening here, if they do work in restaurants, a lot of them are owner operators, a lot of them might be management level, what are some things people could be thinking about, of how they can help the Giving Kitchen? Because I do know, you mentioned that you are Atlanta based, you are growing in the south east, but you do have a national reach. So you will help people in all 50 states, so you obviously need funding to help this happen. I know we have some major contributors. I know at Aprio we’re big fans and supporters of Giving Kitchen and anything we could do we always want to help, but what about some restaurant owners and operators who want to be able to give back to you but might not have the money to do it?

Absolutely. You speak to something that really is true to our origin. When Giving Kitchen was first born, we really leaned heavily on our restaurant partners to help raise funds for Giving Kitchen and to help storytelling. Raising funds – there’s that equal balance of what it means to storytell and how funds will come in. And I will say the pandemic really shed a light on us saying we cannot lean on those restaurant partners anymore to ask them to contribute to Giving Kitchen. It really has to go back to those individuals in our community to help fundraise for us and through corporations or family foundations, and the partners like Aprio and others who really step up in a really huge way for Giving Kitchen. So when the restaurant partners, etc. come to us and say ‘hey there, I really want to be involved, I want to do something,’ what’s great about that is that we actually have some products that fit beautifully within this worldwide love of food and beverage world that we love. We have caused marketing opportunities like our Giving Kitchen wine, it is a wine that actually has been produced out of Napa Valley by some really outstanding winemakers, and I realize I’m biased by saying this but the wine is exceptional and anyone can buy it, yes, and restaurants can sell the wine. So it’s an interesting balance of ‘I don’t have a ton to contribute,’ but you do because you can be a storyteller for the food service workers directly in your restaurant, you can house our Giving Kitchen wine as one minor example or Community, if you want to do a beer or something. You can have these products available and share the story of Giving Kitchen, while also raising monies for the agency as well.

It’s amazing. And then I know some people will do different weeks or months to add a little to your check and then make a donation again. So it’s spreading the word and getting people to see what’s happening without them having to go into their pocket, because again, between pandemic and inflation and everything else that’s happening, it’s a little harder for restaurants to be able to write that check directly like they would have years ago.

Absolutely. And we have a really awesome plethora of campaigns that we run throughout the year. One of my favorites, honestly, is coming up in October. It’s called Dining with Gratitude. So, almost think of it as like a restaurant week but on a really large scale. It’s the entire month of October, and any participating restaurant can sign up to be a fundraiser for Giving Kitchen. The restaurant doesn’t necessarily have to raise the funds. But what they can do is ask their community to donate while they’re eating or after they’ve eaten to help raise funds for food service workers and Giving Kitchen, but that’s just another small example of how, again, the restaurant community can participate in ways that aren’t just a direct donation.

Oh, that’s amazing. So could you plug that quickly so that whoever’s listening could see how they could sign up if they’re an operator?

Absolutely. You can always find anything that Giving Kitchen is hosting via our website at givingkitchen.org. Dining with Gratitude is a month long eat out and help raise funds for food service workers campaign. It is throughout the entire month of October this year. Again, go to our website, givingkitchen.org/dwg, for Dining with Gratitude, to see all of our participating restaurants and just go out and eat.

Awesome. Well, Jen, is there anything else that you want to share about Giving Kitchen or anything else you want to make sure that the audience knows what’s happening or any other facts or figures or anything? Because every time we talk, I feel like different stuff comes up, and each time I’m just more blown away by the good work you guys are doing.

I’m with you, myself. It really is kind of amazing. I will say just this year alone, we’re just barely halfway through 2022, and we’ve awarded over $1.1 million in financial aid this year alone already, which will put us on pace for nearly $2 million by the end of the year. Since our inception, Giving Kitchen has served over 10,000 clients, 10,000 food service workers and their families with financial aid and community resources. What’s really spectacular is that within those numbers, that’s 2570 children plus that we’ve really been able to help keep in the households, make sure there’s food in the refrigerator for those children, make sure that these children aren’t among an eviction, or chance of being evicted. So those are really the big scale numbers of what financial contribution to Giving Kitchen means, storytelling and sharing this mission means, is really helping those food service workers and their families at times of crisis.

Well, Jen, as always, thank you for talking. Thank you for sharing the story of Giving Kitchen and how we can all help. The numbers are staggering and upsetting. But thank God there are organizations like you guys who are making days better for people who really need it. So thank you so much for joining. I can’t wait to see you when I’m in Atlanta next. And to everyone listening, support Giving Kitchen or your local food charities because if you could, why not? 

Why not?  Dana, thank you so much.

Thank you to all of our listeners to the Dana Delivers by Aprio podcast. If you liked today’s podcast, please hit the subscribe button. Dana Delivers is brought to you by Aprio, a premier accounting and business advisory firm with offices across the US and clients around the globe.

About Jen Hidinger Kendrick:

Jen Hidinger Kendrick is a co-founder of Giving Kitchen, specializing in the storytelling of the organization and its work across the country to help food service workers in need. She received the Community Hero award from the Atlanta Braves and Fox Sports South for her work with Giving Kitchen, as well as several other accolades in magazines like Entrepreneur Magazine and especially in the Atlanta area.

Jen received her bachelor’s degree in broadcast communication from Indiana University, and has a background in managing and advertising in the food service industry.

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Dana Zukofsky

Dana Zukofsky is the Restaurant, Franchise & Hospitality Practice Leader at Aprio, providing advisory, accounting and consulting services to help foster profitability and growth.