This spring, downtown Kansas City residents, some of them homeless, began buzzing about a new hangout spot. “We started hearing, ‘We’re going to Club 750,’” said Beau G. Heyen, president and CEO of Episcopal Community Services (ECS) Heartland, which runs several metro-area meal programs and food pantries. “And we’re like, what in the world is Club 750?”
Heyen and his colleagues quickly realized it was their own Kansas City Community Kitchen (KCCK), located at 750 Paseo Boulevard, that was generating buzz — gaining a reputation among at-risk residents for restaurant-style meals complete with hosted seating, servers, and a high regard for guests. “Everyone was rebranding us in the community as this hip place to be,” Heyen said. “There’s a mentality that can sometimes happen around an emergency-food setting that can be a little volatile. Because we were engaging and listening to guests, we began seeing a dramatic shift in the culture of our facility, a much more positive experience. We saw people building better relationships.”
TABLE FOR SIX, PLEASE
The cafeteria in the Downtown Community Services Center has been serving soup-kitchen-style meals since 1980. ECS took over the program in 2005 as part of its Episcopal Hunger Relief Network. Like many soup kitchens, KCCK served daily lunches buffet-style, with guests waiting in line to fill their plates before taking seats at oversized tables.
In recent years, a handful of food organizations in other parts of the country have been tinkering with their feeding model, offering table service as a way of helping restore dignity to the people eating donated meals. Heyen saw the success of this approach while working with hunger-relief organizations in New York City — especially as chief operating officer for Masbia, an emergency-food provider in Brooklyn and Queens. “Walking down Flatbush Avenue or Queens Boulevard,” Heyen said, “[Masbia] has restaurant facades that you wouldn’t really know are soup kitchens.”
When the Nebraska-born Heyen moved back to the Midwest last year to join ECS, the idea of “dining with dignity” came with him. A few issues plagued the Kansas City area’s hunger-relief network, and Heyen thought that KCCK was ripe for the new model — and possibly could catalyze idea-sharing among the city’s patchwork of feeding programs.
ECS worked with local chef Michael Curry, who himself had emerged from poverty, to develop a menu of healthy dishes. The nonprofit also hustled to get out the word that it would need 15 to 20 volunteers each day to make the model work. This past February, it unveiled KCCK’s reimagined lunch service, with volunteers greeting and seating guests, and sharing the two to three dishes on offer — then delivering meals to tables and bussing plates afterward.
The food goes beyond pizza or sloppy joes. Lamb stew, sirloin-tip chili, and even ras-el-hanout chicken all have made menu appearances. “There’s definitely a lot of chicken,” Heyen said — because of both cost and popularity — but fish dishes such as lemon-poached swai have been crowd-pleasers, too. The staff publishes enticing pictures of those dishes on Instagram using the hashtag #NotJustASoupKitchen.
Word spread quickly. Since the program began, ECS has seen a month-over-month increase of 10 percent in diner volume, and has served up to 325 meals during a three-hour lunch service. Heyen chalks up the program’s success to the power of showing respect. “Before, people were going through that line, having food put on their plate, and maybe [getting] smiled at, maybe grumbled at,” Heyen said. “I think one of the biggest pieces is really asking our guests what they want, and that’s not often what they’re used to.”
Some guests have made it a point to share their gratitude via thank-you notes. A recent letter from a father of three read: “It’s not often we get to go out to a restaurant. This new service is really nice, reminds us of being at a restaurant. Makes us feel really special.”
ECS has also begun a 30-week training program, Culinary Cornerstones Training, to teach at-risk job seekers both front-of-house and kitchen skills. The pilot program has five students — and a second purpose: It will also provide ECS with trained staffers for a planned expansion of KCCK’s restaurant service later this summer. ECS plans to offer a few more lunch choices each day, as well as printed, multilingual menus with pictures and nutritional information.
ECS will also hire a staff nutritionist. “A lot of our population, especially those who are homeless, suffer from hypertension and diabetes,” Heyen said, “and we want to be able to teach them why they should pick certain items based on their dietary needs.” To that end, ECS is planning more efficient food pantries, including one that more closely resembles a grocery store.
As for the vibe of Club 750? “We’re like, let’s live into it a little bit. So once a month, we have a performer who does live music,” Heyen said. “It’s like a celebration. If that’s what the community sees us as, in their eyes, we want to figure out how to make that happen.”
The restaurant-service model at the Kansas City Community Kitchen has generated a lot of buzz — as well as phone calls from groups eager to replicate the model in their own communities. ECS’s Beau G. Heyen has a few tips for rethinking service:
1. DISREGARD DIVISIONS. Nearly 70 percent of the people who use the Kansas City Community Kitchen identify as homeless — but ECS invites all community members to dine there, including local business leaders. “Give people the opportunity to have conversations across boundaries,” Heyen said.
2. LEVERAGE PARTNERSHIPS. ECS depends on food-service partners such as Sysco to clue it in on price fluctuations and sales, saving the organization money and enabling it to feed more people. Recently, Kansas City–based CitiCards sponsored KCCK’s operations for a day, sending both volunteers and food donations.
3. PAY IT FORWARD. ECS has been holding local “hunger summits,” and this spring organized a webinar, “Dining With Dignity,” to share what it’s learned so far.