Cancer put the brakes on the dreams of Ryan and Jen Hidinger.
Ryan was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer. Doctors told him he had about six months to live.
Before the news, Ryan, a well-known Atlanta chef, and his wife, Jen, had dreams of opening their own restaurant. Every Sunday, they would invite 10 guests to their home. There was no set menu — just Ryan cooking a five-course meal and Jen serving. The couple called these dinners “Prelude to Staplehouse,” using them to experiment and refine the concept for a restaurant they hoped to open one day.
“Everything came to a halt,” Jen says. “The dream that we were so tirelessly working towards … this child that we called a restaurant came crashing down.”
Even though Ryan had insurance coverage, the prospect of paying for cancer treatments that weren’t covered, plus the couple’s normal living expenses, was a daunting financial burden.
But the Atlanta restaurant community stepped up to help. A benefit was organized to raise money to cover Ryan’s cancer treatments. Almost 900 people attended the gala — dubbed “Team Hidi” — and in one night, $275,000 was collected.
The money allowed Jen to quit her job and focus on being Ryan’s caregiver as he began his cancer fight. The benefit also sparked an idea: What if the love and generosity they were shown could be captured and replicated to help other restaurant workers blindsided by illness or injury? The concept gave them a renewed purpose, something they could start together.
In 2013 they founded a nonprofit called The Giving Kitchen to build a safety net for Atlanta’s restaurant workers. Throughout the year, Ryan witnessed the growth of what would become his legacy.
On January 9, 2014, Ryan died.
Through The Giving Kitchen, Jen continues to build on the initial goodwill she and her late husband received. To date, the charity has awarded $650,000 in grant money to 368 recipients and expects to award almost $500,000 this year.
“He would say he was just a cook, he was just a guy, he didn’t deserve any of this,” Jen says. “But it’s pretty powerful to know that one gentleman, who just happened to be this goofy, insanely talented cook, could change an entire community … change an entire industry.”
The Giving Kitchen’s executive director, Stephanie Galer, agrees. “Everyone could be in the situations that these workers are,” she says. “When you add in the industry, when you add in the variable hours, the traditionally lower wages, the very physical nature of the work … you know, this is a unique situation that needs a unique solution.”
The Atlanta restaurant community continues to support The Giving Kitchen. In February the now annual “Team Hidi” fundraising event made over $380,000. The nonprofit also collects money through partnerships within the restaurant industry and through donations from individuals and businesses.
Now there is another source of income. Jen and Ryan’s dream restaurant, Staplehouse, is open for business as a for-profit subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen, and 100% of the restaurant’s proceeds go to support the charity’s mission.
“It’s humbling to be able to stand every single night at the restaurant that we dreamed of, welcoming guests with open arms just the way we always intended,” Jen says.
Ryan is there with her in spirit. On a wall in the restaurant’s kitchen is a quote from her husband: “Anything long-lasting or worthwhile takes time and complete surrender.”