Her Restaurant Is Thriving — Despite its Tragic Origin Story

Meghan French Dunbar July 5, 2016

Light can emerge from the darkest of times. That’s the lesson of Atlanta-based restaurant Staplehouse, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit organization The Giving Kitchen (TGK). TGK provides emergency assistance grants to kitchen and restaurant workers who are facing unexpected crises. Staplehouse is Atlanta’s hottest new restaurant, and supports TGK with 100 percent of its after-tax profits. It’s a hybrid structure; one part of the business doesn’t exist without the other. Yet the project only came to be after a key part of co-founder Jen Hidinger’s life went missing.

Hidinger had been planning an eatery for years with her husband Ryan Hidinger, a chef. The couple would invite community members to their home every Sunday for a supper club where they tested menu ideas and recipes. The intention was to refine the concept for the restaurant they dreamed of opening together.

But in late 2012, life interrupted their plans: Ryan was diagnosed with late-stage gallbladder cancer. Doctors gave him just months to live. As the young couple dealt with their new reality, they also witnessed their community rallying around them, raising more than $275,000 to assist with medical bills. Out of this community- based support, the idea for The Giving Kitchen emerged as a way to pay forward the kindness they had been shown and a means of perpetuating such kindness wherever there was need.

In January 2014, Ryan passed away. His widow decided the best way to carry forward her husband’s legacy would be to continue with their plans for Staplehouse. She opened the restaurant in late 2015 with Ryan’s sister Kara Hidinger and Kara’s husband Ryan Smith as business partners.

Success came quickly: local critics raved about the food, and in 2016 the James Beard Foundation nominated the restaurant as one of the best new restaurants in the country. Meanwhile, as of May 2016, The Giving Kitchen had already provided more than $500,000 in emergency grants in the local community.

Hidinger spoke to us about resilience in the face of unimaginable challenge, and what gave her the courage to keep pushing forward to open the business of her — and her late husband’s — dreams.

Staplehouse was a finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.

“You either choose to get out of bed or you don’t. It’s as black and white as that. You can either choose to smile or you can choose to frown.”

Why kitchen and restaurant workers?

Jen Hidinger: It was inspired by what happened to Ryan, who was a chef here in town for many years. When he was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, our community really rallied behind us. It wasn’t the restaurant community only; it was the community — anybody who loved the restaurants that he had worked at or knew of him or us.

A lightbulb went off: for the restaurant industry specifically, there was nothing available as that backbone of support when something crucial would happen, like an unexpected injury. Unlike many other organizations, corporate entities, or industries, if hard times happen, there’s nothing to protect or help restaurant workers. That was the primary reason for us helping build The Giving Kitchen and knowing that we wanted to dedicate it, to start at least, to restaurant workers specifically. Before opening Staplehouse, you and Ryan had this long period of inviting people to your home, refining your concept, and testing out various menus on people. Was this helpful? Do you recommend that other entrepreneurs, especially those in the restaurant space, refine their concept before really diving in and opening something?

“As an entrepreneur, if you’re not able to adapt to what reality is when things happen, then you might be in the wrong field; you might as well work for someone else forever.”

JH: For any entrepreneur, there’s a balancing act of just diving in and doing what you like and seeing what it turns into. We all start with this “plan.” Even we thought we had a plan, and that plan obviously completely changed. As an entrepreneur, if you’re not able to adapt to what reality is when things happen, then you might be in the wrong field; you might as well work for someone else forever.

That’s really what entrepreneurship is all about. It’s adaptation and that willingness to go where your community will take you.

How has opening the Staplehouse felt to you? What has this process been like?

JH: The first six months were… exhausting, yes, but it was more than that. It was uncertain, and didn’t sit right in our guts. Was business building? Yes. Were guests happy? Yeah, absolutely. Were we excited? Yes. Were we super nervous? Yes.

I feel like it’s been just recently — literally the last couple of weeks — that the energy has shifted from pure intrigue to excitement. It’s now really fun. It’s definitely extremely hard and tough down there. We’re short-staffed and the hours we’re having to put in when we’re here is exhausting. But, again, it always goes back to adaptability and sticking to your guts.

If you really believe in something, why not just push for that? If it’s showing progression and you believe in it, even if it’s not something that’s turning around in a couple of weeks or even a couple of months, but if it’s showing something positive over this long span of time, stick with it!

What is the largest challenge that Staplehouse and TGK are facing right now? If you had a magic wand to fix anything, what would you fix?

JH: Having enough people to where we don’t feel exhausted at the end of the day because it was too hard, versus the exhaustion of feeling really great about what we produced. Honestly, in this city, with the amount of growth it’s seeing with restaurants opening up left and right, I don’t know where enough industry people are. We need more people here.

You guys are blowing up right now; how are you taking care of yourself?

JH: I trust my body. I learned what that meant after Ryan passed away, where I just let my heart and soul and brain work together and naturally let them lead me. If I’m tired, my body will rest the way it needs to rest.

Also, most recently, we’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I have really thoughtfully and carefully tried to dedicate at least one full day to personal home life with my boyfriend and dogs. That’s been helpful.

It’s very difficult in this kind of small business and partnership to be away for two full days or whatnot, because it really doesn’t ever turn off. It is a 24-hour-a-day love affair. But when time permits and it feels like it’s doable, then really stepping away has proven very successful for my mental wellbeing.

Every entrepreneur that I’ve ever talked to faces immense challenge and finds opening a business to be one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. You’ve faced an unimaginable challenge so far in your career. What advice do you have for others in terms of persevering in the face of challenge and overcoming obstacles?

JH: We have to remind ourselves that we have choice. It’s that simple.

You either choose to get out of bed or you don’t. It’s as black and white as that. You can either choose to smile or you can choose to frown. You can choose to open up a door for somebody else or you can just walk in front and ignore them. It’s about choosing the positive. Choosing to spin a negative conversation into something a little bit more light-hearted. Choosing to do your best.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in the day, tackle two things: it’s making a choice to say, “I can do this and I’m going to do it — or at least do it to the best of my ability.” What are the qualities that you possess that have helped you maintain resilience and become the leader that you’re growing into being right now?

JH: I am eternally optimistic. That is just my nature. I really didn’t understand what that meant until the last couple of years. I’ve learned a lot. It feels almost cliché or silly, but I guess I just chose to accept all of this. I happen to be eternally optimistic and I happen to be really weird and dance like Elaine on Seinfeld . I just do and that’s just what it is.

Even as the eternal optimist that I am, that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle or cry for an hour when I get home. Maybe I haven’t in the last little bit, but pain is pain, for everybody, and that struggle is very real.

It always goes back to choice though; you can either stay there or you can choose to push yourself along. If you’ve got great friends and family, and a support system to help you through, that’s pretty major.

What’s the largest piece of advice that you have for other entrepreneurs?

JH: Lean on others and ask for help. There is this hard line of pride; not enough people feel okay to ask for help. It’s really, truly okay to say, “I need help right now.”

I’m sure that in your young life you have received a lot of advice. Is there a quote or a piece of advice that has stuck with you?

JH: Interestingly enough, it comes from Ryan, my late husband. When he was still alive, he did a Creative-Mornings talk — these big once-a-month gatherings of creative entrepreneurs. Ryan was invited to do a talk about food and medicine when he was sick. It was June 2013, about six months into his treatment. He was really sick. He had lost weight. His hair had changed to gray. He looked different. This quote came out at one point where he was talking about the reality of where we were and what it takes to persevere: “Anything that’s long-lasting and worthwhile takes time and complete surrender.”

That’s the one I love the most.

I can see why. What is giving you hope for the future?

JH: I am in love. I found love after Ryan. I’ve been with my boyfriend for a while. He’s such a gift — I like to say that to people, because he is.

And then my relationship with my family, with friends, and with my business partners, and the challenges that we all went through as a family after Ryan passed. How that’s growing and building is just great. It gives me hope.

And then growth for The Giving Kitchen. There’s a ton happening. Where we are now from where we were at the beginning is a pretty substantial difference. Knowing that over the next three to five years it might hit outward of just metro Atlanta is really motivating and encouraging.

Climate Action / Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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