RICHMOND, Va. -- At the height of their success, Kate Houck and Michael Sparks were cooking up lavish dinners around the country. Their company, The Underground Kitchen, hosted events that allowed people to experience upscale dining with chef-led dinners and world-class wine pairings.
The company worked with more than 100 chefs across the United States and was about to forge a deal in Turks and Caicos when the pandemic hit.
Their business model was so popular, the duo was about to sign a television production deal when the pandemic and shutdown shuttered their plans.
“By March 11, after having a pity party with a lot of wine, Michael called and said ‘I know what we’re going to do,’” Houck explained.
Realizing that others in the community were hurting far worse, Houck and Sparks came up with the idea for the Underground Kitchen Community First program, to provide meals to underserved communities.
“Us thinking we were saving others during the crisis, ended up saving us,” Sparks said.
The business partners teamed up with several Episcopal churches to make soup and bake bread, and deliver them to people in need across metro Richmond.
Roslyn, an Episcopal retreat and conference center on 120 acres of sprawling riverfront property, served as the epicenter for their operation.
The Episcopal Diocese embraced the partnership because of shared common value beliefs of social justice and community outreach.
“At the height, we had nine kitchens we were working out of and a team of about 15 chefs and two bakers in there,” Houck said. “So we were doing homemade bread and soups every day. We figured we'd go until the food and money ran out and then we started getting donations from people in the community.”
Since March, the Underground Kitchen Community First program has served meals to more than 60,000 people across Metro Richmond.
The wide-spread impact made the organization’s founders realize that they could expand their mission to not only provide meals but include social justice and job building programs.
“The good news is that in six months, we’ve grown so much that we have to move to a larger kitchen which is going to be announced in a couple of weeks,” Sparks said. “We’ll be able to almost triple the amount of production we’ve done.”
The organization hopes to recruit young people, especially men and women of color, who are interested in the culinary arts and hospitality fields.
The organization will help train future chefs while continuing its mission to serve underserved communities.
“It’s a grueling business and it’s hard,” Houck said. “You need all the support you can get.”
The organization also plans to work with local farmers and growers to support farm to kitchen initiatives.
“These are the kind of deals we’re trying to do with the Underground Kitchen so that we feed our youth, we feed our seniors, and feed folks who are sick,” Sparks said. “That’s what is important to us.”
Houck and Sparks said Roslyn would continue to host upscale events for the company that will focus on COVID-safe culinary and small corporate functions.
On October 31 for example, Roslyn will host an event as part of The Virginia Opera’s “Stayin Alive” series.
Tickets start at $10 and go up to $150 for fine dining and VIP seating.
It's a partnership between faith and food, that Houck and Sparks hope will forge a stronger community.
“I think it’s important that there’s a beacon of light,” Sparks said. “And that we can be part of that light.”
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