Seated at the bar of the Staplehouse Restaurant, the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta, just a few blocks away from the house that Martin Luther King was born in, is one of the best places to observe the beautiful interior decor, and pick up the stylish yet welcoming vibe of what has been both GQ and Bon Appetit’s Restaurant of the Year. The cocktails are cold and refreshing, and the food–modern American cooking with innovative Southern influences–is delicious (the restaurant has also been nominated for James Beard awards a couple of times). Yet what captivates me is the story that the bartender is telling me about how this marvel of a restaurant came into existence. How it started with tragedy: husband and wife Ryan and Jen Hidinger, who had a dream of opening the restaurant, dreams which were rudely interrupted when Ryan was diagnosed with Stage 4 gallbladder cancer; which lead to the Atlanta community rallying together to raise funds for him, and which despite his untimely passing which lead to this restaurant run by Jen, her sister Kara, and her husband Ryan Smith (also a chef). A restaurant that is wholly owned by a non-profit (The Giving Kitchen) that now, in turn, helps Atlanta and surrounding area restaurant workers in their times of need to the tune of over $2 million so far. It is a heart-breaking, yet inspirational story of family, community, and grit and it blows me away. ‘Where is Jen Hidinger?’ I ask. ‘I’d love to speak to her.’ The bartender smiled. ‘She just served you’ he said, and I turn to see a young woman in overalls, her arms covered in tattoos, walking away through this restaurant built with love and grace.
Jen Hidinger Lizzy Johnston
Many months later, I finally get a chance to sit down with Jen Hidinger and interview her properly about this rollercoaster ride and what lessons she drew from it. The story begins with Hidinger working in a supermarket as a check-out girl. "I was an office manager and a cashier at a local grocery store and he would come into smile and wave and buy packs of Bubblicious bubble gum – no joke – and he would come through my line, just say ‘hello’ and go, and it was kind of love at first sight. It took him a little longer but for me, it was love at first sight especially when he told me he was a cook and that’s what he did for a living" she said. However, the very first meal that Ryan cooked for Jen didn’t exactly blow her away. She laughed, "The very first dish Ryan ever made for me was some sort of stuffed chicken dish with artichokes. I remember being floored by the fact that I was getting this completely from-scratch meal made by this tall dark handsome man–but I also remember it being very kind of lackluster! But it was sweet and magical."
Despite this less than promising culinary start. the couple bonded deeply over food and their natural hospitality then evolved into the next stage of their plan. "So by January of 2009, we landed on the idea of hosting strangers in our home. and it was right around that time when you know doing something off the cuff like that, inviting strangers into your home for what we called an ‘underground supper club’, was really new in Atlanta., it was not new in Seattle and in San Francisco and New York and LA, but it was really new for Atlanta, and clearly the city craved it. The city was in growth with creativity and culture and really desired something really unique like that, so for us, that was really our stepping stone and it became the idea of wanting to open up a restaurant that we would call ‘Staplehouse’”, said Hidinger. The name itself is embedded with lots of meaning. She said, "’Staples’ we landed on for the things that you crave and love and want to come back to; and we needed to feel approachable and welcoming, warm and inviting and ‘House’ was the place that you go to get them. So naturally, “Staplehouse’ became the name."
After four years of hosting these supper clubs, the couple was finally in a good place financially with banks and potential investors all lined up. Jen sent Ryan off on a celebratory tour of New York’s culinary hotspots in commemoration of their anniversary. But when he arrived back, things started to go wrong. Hidinger said, "I sent him to New York for about 12 hours (because that was all we could afford!) so he could finally experience it for the first time. And when he got back, he got really sick and several days later it just led to persistent pain, it took him away from work for the first time ever in his entire career, which led us to an ultrasound, which ultimately led us to an MRI on December 21st of 2012–and that was the day that the doctor told him he had six months to live due to stage four gallbladder cancer."
What happened when the news got out was an outpouring of love and support from their community, which rallied around them to organize a ‘Team Hidi’ event to raise money for the couple. Hidinger paused as she reflected on the events of that moment."‘Impactful’ really doesn’t even shape the gratitude, the emotion, the unity really behind what happened. We use the word “grateful” a lot because we do think it encompasses so much more than just ‘thankfulness’, and thankfulness is huge, but there ’s just such a deep-seated amount of emotion behind what changed our lives. And I say that on multiple levels : the community rallying around us from our business mentors to our families and friends who quite literally created a committee of people, who within just 3 and a half weeks’ time was able to put on an event that raised shy of $300,000 for him, for us in one night. The impact of that is just huge, and life-changing and not only did that give us kind of that backbone of support, ultimately when Ryan passed away it was that same community who got me through it."
For Hidinger, it also underlined the importance of asking for help. "I think for a lot of people. you are afraid or unwilling to ask for help because you don’t think that you need it., and the reality is, is that you know we are all humans! We are meant to live the healthiest life that we can, and to be here for one another–that is how growth really happens. And for us as that young couple, it was Ryan’s bosses at that time who really came forward–Ryan Turner, Chris Hall, and Todd Mussman–those three specifically who said that ‘let us help you’”. Well entrenched in the Atlanta restaurant scene because of their restaurants—Muss & Turner’s, Local Three Kitchen & Bar, Eleanor’s, and Common Quarter—the partners were the driving force behind the fundraising event which has now turned into an annual mainstay of the restaurant industry in the city. It brought together what was usually a pretty competitive industry and unified it in an unprecedented way. "I had never seen it in this capacity until it happened here in Atlanta–the idea of restaurants working together for one common factor. This was the first time that very selflessly chefs, restaurants, mentors, business people within this industry specifically dropped everything and said, ‘let’s just come together and make a difference’, for this one guy at that time, but now ultimately for 5 years."
But that night also planted a seed in the couple’s heads about how they could, in turn, give back to this same community with the same love it had shown them.“The impact of what happened that night ultimately opened up the notion that there could be something more and something bigger, something that could give back to our community, and ultimately that’s what we decided was that was our way and means of ‘paying it forward’. After that event that’s really when the idea of “The Giving Kitchen” came to fruition.” Hidinger talked about the awakening they experienced when they realized their dream of Staplehouse could be in service of something even bigger. "We realize that our moment to be able to say thank you, to have it become action-oriented, was to ‘pay it forward’ by starting the nonprofit, and realizing that the dream of Staplehouse Restaurant could a become something more purpose driven. And it ended up becoming something that we could not only share a story, and bring light to the mission of Giving Kitchen, but we also donate our net profits back to the nonprofit as a sustainable stream of support."
Staplehouse opened in September 2015, powered by the trio of Hidinger, her sister-in-law Kara Hidinger (Ryan Hidinger’s sister), and Kara’s husband, Chef Ryan Turner. "The three of us as partners, I think we have a really strong family foundation to stand on. Its a humbling one for sure; it’s hard work all the way around. but I think it grounds us naturally." It also gives the restaurant its own sense of higher purpose. "Well, when you are able to offer what we believe a high-quality high level of service and that encompasses food, beverage, and hospitality. but you are able to do it for the sake of a nonprofit and feed it back into your own community I think that’s a pretty big purpose." This sense of higher purpose is also something felt by everyone working at the restaurant. We have a really dedicated team and there isn’t one teammate in these walls who didn’t come in knowing a little bit about the reality of what we do. Obviously, it’s a restaurant, but the reality is that we are owned by a nonprofit and we give back directly. I think all of our staff understand that there is a drive and different work being done here–they are fulfilling dreams."
On the non-profit side, The Giving Kitchen has continued to expand its scope at an amazing pace."Giving Kitchen officially celebrated our 5-year anniversary in May which is absolutely powerful and amazing, and what the organization as a whole been able to do statistically is pretty profound. So since inception, The Giving Kitchen has been able to award just over $2 million dollars to our community that’s currently covering 47 counties outside of Atlanta, to over 1100 restaurant workers have been in crisis. that is medical or otherwise. That is something like a natural disaster, a death of an immediate family member, a sickness or an injury anything that’s kind of taking you out of work or off your feet for some time, again Giving Kitchen is able to fill that gap. Our goal, based on our strategic planning that we have set in place, is that by 2020 we will be covering the entire state of Georgia."
Hidinger talks about some of the stories that have moved her the most. "It is everything from a bartender leaving work on his motorcycle who gets hit by a car at a red light in a hit and run accident, and he is in the hospital because of two broken legs. It is a woman who has a child with leukemia who doesn’t want to leave her baby’s side, and who is having to miss an abundant amount of work. It is terrifying and sad stories of parents losing their children, of losing their parents, of losing their siblings. It is really courageous and beautiful stories of breast cancer survivors going through that process but being able to return back to work. And, our recipients quite often will end up volunteering their time after they get better and back to work, and that’s one of my favorite full circle moments; they come back and they offer their time. What it has turned into it really has become kind of this ‘ lighthouse’ for a lot of people."
The experience has also contributed to helping Hidinger herself find a sense of purpose and meaning on a deeper level as a storyteller about hope and inspiration." After Ryan passed away, it was the moment that the community started to want to hear more. and then I just started to talk about it. And after death, being able to talk about it provided again a platform for me that ultimately felt like therapy. And the more of that happened, the more I talked about it, the more others started to gravitate towards it. And then I naturally became somebody who just started to speak on it all over the place, and that led to all over the country. I went to school and purposely did not study business because I was terrified of speech and debate and now here I am, I speak constantly. I get asked to tell the story locally and nationally to share the mission of Giving Kitchen which absolute provides me purpose. It absolutely provides me with a foundation and grounding that I wouldn’t change. I am happy to wear those shoes. it’s not something that I thought would’ve ever happened but I am proud. I wear that badge of ‘widow’ and I don’t take it lightly."
Hidinger offers some advice for those on their own journey of purpose."You know I think there’s the obvious of ‘never give up’, and I say that’s obvious but the reality is that when it’s a passion that becomes a fabric of who you are, it is a part of your being and a part of your soul, and while the idea of never giving up is true, there is also the reality of being able to kind of apply what you’ve learned throughout your time and allow that to kind of mold and reshape where you are today. If there is something that you want in life if and you see that light just allow that light to be become bigger, use your resources for help. Again because I have gone through my own journey through having a spouse who was faced with cancer and who ultimately passed away from cancer, he led a life that was inspiring to myself and to a lot of other people. He left a legacy behind that will literally help change the course of lives for thousands and thousands and thousands of people down the road, and that’s the idea of never give up for me.
Staplehouse’s story has also given others meaning as Hidinger witnessed one day."There was a moment where I was working at the host stand as I do frequently, and I had noticed a woman walk in. And she stopped there, and she was looking into the dining room, and I noticed some tears in her eyes that had started to fall down her cheek. I approached and I asked her name and she said, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I have been waiting for years to get here”, she said. “I followed your prelude to Staple House story, the cancer diagnosis and Ryan and his cancer battle journey, the launch of the Giving kitchen and now I am here I am here at Staplehouse”, she said. “I had cancer and I beat it, and your story was my inspiration". Hidinger paused to clear her throat, obviously moved by the recollection. "I still can’t speak because that’s powerful for someone to go through a lot of the same emotions: through fright, and uncertainty, and hope, and perseverance, and to feel motivated and inspired just by what somebody else is giving… I love that full circle approach, it’s amazing."
Ryan Hidinger died at home in Atlanta, GA, on January 9, 2014, with his wife, Jennifer Wells Hidinger, by his side. He was 36 years old. If you seek a monument to the courage, grace and strength of him and his family, friends, and community, have a meal at Staplehouse one day and look around you at the families and couples enjoying the food, the warmth and hospitality. If you pay close attention, you’ll see his words painted on a wall above our heads: ‘Anything long-lasting or worthwhile takes time and complete surrender’. And in one of the most uplifting parts of this whole story, Jen Hidinger found love again and got married to John Wayne Kendrick on October 22nd, 2017. The couple recently celebrated their one year anniversary. She said, "Us connecting and finding love in one another was something I never thought could happen again. John is a gift to me".
The story of Staplehouse shows us that we can all make a contribution to our community, no matter how big or small. It shows us the power of a ‘conspiracy of love’ to come together around a common cause, family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, to set aside their own everyday pain and heartache, and work together for a higher purpose, to be of service to others in their time of need. It shows you don’t have to be a giant multi-national corporation to do things that are meaningful to large groups of people, as the beneficiaries of The Giving Kitchen can attest to. In an age of toxicity and divisiveness, it shows us the things that really matter–like simple human decency and kindness. Staplehouse and The Giving Kitchen should be an inspiration to the rest of us all to think about how we can all do more good right from where we are today.