The perks of working in the service industry are vast. Bar and restaurant employees gain an intimate knowledge of their town by talking to regulars who frequent their locations, co-working relationships are typically familial and deeply supportive, and work is driven by a passion for meaningful drinking and dining experiences.
But if there’s one thing service industry folks are often missing, it’s the security of paid time off and insurance benefits offered by other career avenues. It’s easy to ignore this harsh reality until crisis strikes with no regard for savings accounts or insurance coverage.
Hope exists in Atlanta, Ga. where The Giving Kitchen is providing relief to local restaurant employees who find themselves in dire circumstances.
HARD TIMES COME WITH NO WARNING
In the spring of 2013, Angela Riley woke up in a hospital room with no recollection of getting there. In her last memory, she was leaving a Nashville bar during one of her best friend’s bachelorette parties. She’d gone to the party after paying rent and with just enough leftover cash to make it through an expensive weekend of festivities.
She didn’t anticipate the cost of a traumatic brain injury or broken back, both of which she sustained from being hit by a drunk driver as she left a karaoke bar. She didn’t imagine being injured so severely that she wouldn’t be able to return to serving tables at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, a job that she dearly loved.
But in the month that she spent unconscious after an accident that she will never remember, her community met her needs.
A few months before Riley’s accident, Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger was diagnosed with advanced gallbladder cancer. His illness catalyzed the local restaurant industry to put competition aside and band together for one of their own. The effort began as a fundraiser called “Team Hidi” in which the biggest names in the Atlanta service industry collaborated to host an event of grand proportions: 800 people attended, and nearly $300,000 was raised.
The money raised by his friends, family and peers was more than he could have imagined and exceeded his needs. Inspired by the generosity he received, he decided to pay it forward.
MISFORTUNE SPARKS A MOVEMENT
Leon’s Full Service owner Michael Gallagher knew that Hidinger wanted to share what he’d been given, and he relayed his mission to Riley’s parents. Ultimately, she was given sufficient funds to fully recover in her own home, to stay off of her feet as long as her body demanded and to recover with the peace of mind that she was taken care of.
“Not having to move home was a big chunk of why I was able to recover so quickly,” says Riley. “I had independence and that was a big part of getting better. It was incredible.”
Although the last year of his life was ripe with new beginnings that he provided for other people, cancer took Ryan Hidinger’s life in January of 2014. But the work he began lives on.
Angela Riley was out of work for a year, and in that time Team Hidi became The Giving Kitchen, a 501(c)(3) emergency relief grant program. Since she couldn’t return to waiting tables, Riley started volunteering for The Giving Kitchen and later became their full-time communications coordinator.
The non-profit now provides aid to metro Atlanta restaurant employees confronted by unforeseen hardship or crises. With money raised through fundraisers, charitable donations, restaurant industry members, restaurant patrons, and Hidinger’s restaurant set to open this fall, The Giving Kitchen covers expenses like rent, utilities and funeral expenses for applicants who qualify. And for many, it’s made all the difference.
HELP FOR ONE TURNS INTO AID FOR MANY
Powell Norred was bartending at JCT Kitchen when his father passed away. As luck would have it, he’d just paid the month’s rent and utilities. He didn’t know how he would afford taking time away to be with his family. Angela Riley recommended he contact The Giving Kitchen. He received a grant that gave him the means to make the trip and take time off of work without falling into a hole financially. Norred was able to mourn without added stressor of financial pressure.
Not only was Norred relieved of stress, The Giving Kitchen strengthened his connection to the Atlanta service industry, including the dedicated restaurant patrons who have helped make the non-profit a success.
“The Giving Kitchen is awesome, because it brings people together,” he says.
Like the best bartenders, Norred is driven to meet the needs of others. The help he received allowed him to return to his new position as JCT Kitchen’s bar manager with renewed purpose.
“People just want to talk to someone, and they just want to feel like they’re being pampered and taken care of,” he says. “And I love doing that for people.”
529 and Graveyard Tavern bartender Clayton Anderson received aid after being hit by a car while riding his motorcycle home. The Giving Kitchen made it possible for him to recover spiritually as well as physically.
“I can’t even begin to explain how much of a morale boost it gave me,” says Anderson. “To know that I had this group of amazing, caring people–strangers even, that wanted to help me and relieve a lot of that stress was the most amazing feeling I’d ever felt. Even talking about it now gives me chills and makes the hair on my neck stand up.”
Now, more than $454,000 in grant money has gone out to aid metro Atlanta service industry members in the form of 235 crisis grants awarded. It’s a sign of solidarity for the city.
“Atlanta is a unique place, and it really took off here,” says Riley. “Some people say it might not have really caught on in other places.”
AND THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING
The Giving Kitchen looks forward to a bright future with talk of spreading to serve the service industry nationally, maybe even throughout the whole world. There’s no limit to how much good an inspired group of people do. This fall, Ryan Hidinger’s restaurant Staplehouse will open in his memory and its profit will benefit his organization. Through all that he created, his mission and legacy continues to inspire improved perspectives.
“The Giving Kitchen went above and beyond…” says Anderson, “and restored my faith in humanity a little bit and reminded me that in the greatest times of need, people–sometimes even strangers, at the very root of our hearts and souls are good and beautiful.”