Nourishing the soul as well as the body is the goal behind a restaurant Tracy Smith now takes us to:
On a busy corner in Atlanta’s old Fourth Ward is arguably one of the hottest restaurants in the city. Here at Staplehouse, the open kitchen is a hive of perfection. Food is handled like artwork, plated up with tweezers, and devoured by sellout crowds.
And above their heads are quotes from famous fighters, like Muhammed Ali: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”
Which perfectly describes this dream, a dream as big as the heart itself.
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Jen and Ryan Hidinger were famous for throwing pop-up dinner parties in their Atlanta home -- everything from five-star cuisine to Ryan’s favorite chicken wings. In 2012 they wanted to open a real place of their own.
“That was the idea, just to open a small, little neighborhood restaurant. Simple,” said Jen.
There were in the middle of making it happen, when Ryan went to his doctor for a stomach ailment. That’s when their lives caved in.
“Doctor told us, ‘I’m 99.9% sure it’s stage four gallbladder cancer, and you’ve got anywhere from six to 12 months,” Jen recalled.
“How do you even wrap your mind around that?” asked Smith.
“We didn’t. Pure shock.”
Ryan’s younger sister, Kara Hidinger, who was the general manager at a restaurant in town, said, “It’s an emotional story. It’s our story. And it’s joyful, and it’s amazing, but it’s also hard. And it’s sad at times.”
When the news got out, friends and neighbors wrapped their collective arms around Ryan, and held a massive fundraiser to help with his doctor bills.
“Over 800 people showed up, live music, a live auction and $275,000 was raised to help him out,” Jen said.
Was that enough? “It was more than enough.”
And they used the leftovers to found The Giving Kitchen, a fund to help local restaurant workers through their own personal catastrophes.
Server Abigail MacDonald and restaurant manager Jesse Burdette’s baby son, Silas, was born premature and can’t breathe on his own yet. Now the baby has an expensive machine to help keep him alive, and his parents have help with all the bills. “They paid our rent for four months,” MacDonald said.
“They don’t know you personally, but they’re willing to, you know, jump through hoops and do anything they can to help you out,” Burdette said. “It’s really refreshing, and it really gives you some more faith in humanity.”
To date, The Giving Kitchen has helped more than 600 Atlanta restaurant workers, with grants adding up to more than a million dollars.
But there was nothing money could do for Ryan Hidinger; he passed away in January 2014 at age 36.
Still, his family kept his dream alive, and opened Staplehouse the following year. His wife, Jen, runs the place. His old pal, Ryan Smith, does the cooking. And his sister, Kara, is in charge of service.
“The food is incredible,” Kara said. “I would eat here if I had a day off!”
The editors of Bon Appetit felt the same way, naming Staplehouse 2016’s Best New Restaurant in America.
What’s more, the charity gets a percentage of the profits -- like, 100%.
“One-hundred percent of our net profits after taxes, after we pay everyone, we donate those back to The Giving Kitchen,” said Jen. “Anything left over.”
You’ve got to believe that somewhere, Ryan Hidinger must be smiling.
Smith asked, “You guys had a conversation about what the menu might be in heaven?”
Kara replied, “He said that he hoped that heaven had chicken wings!”
Truth is, Staplehouse may be about as close to heaven as a restaurant can get -- yet another reminder that it isn’t just about the food, it’s also about the service.
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