Thinking Outside the Lunch Box: Culinary organization supports other nonprofits while saving itself

Gathering Industries’ Chris Hardaway, Amber West and Alex Reethof.

Gathering Industries, a Christian nonprofit that operates a culinary training program for homeless men, was doing brisk business before the pandemic.

Its paid trainees, called “clients,” worked with the organization’s top-notch chefs in a former Chosewood Park church to prepare and deliver as many as 400 high-end boxed lunches a week to Atlanta offices, hospitals, churches and other sites around town.

All of that was thrown into flux when the pandemic hit.

Training is suspended over concern for the safety of all involved, and lunch orders — which fuel about 40 percent of the group’s revenue — vanished in a new work-from-home world, said Amber West, director of operations.

Volunteers Maggie Benson, Wildine Saint Paul and Chelsey Nwadike distribute lunches at Mercy Care.

A proposal from a donor in mid-March through Gathering Industries a lifeline: “If I give you $2,000, how many lunches can you make to send to front-line hospital workers?”

That led to 500 bagged lunches for Piedmont Hospital workers, all prepared by a pared-down staff – Gathering Industries’ founder Alex Reethof, kitchen supervisor Chris Hardaway and West.

“And then it just sort of had a chain effect,” West said.

During the next several months, additional donations poured in allowing the hearty trio, with the help of an occasional volunteer,  to make and donate 15,000 lunches to hospitals and nonprofits across Atlanta.

One of the ongoing recipients is Wellspring Living, an organization that provides recovery services for sex trafficking victims through residential and community-based programs.

Currently, Gathering Industries delivers enough meals to provide daily lunches for up to 20 children and their direct-care staff in Wellspring Living’s new Receiving Hope Center – Georgia’s first residential intake center for trafficked youth.

Barb Giuliano, logistics program coordinator, said the gift of free  meals has given her organization “a fiscal and mental break.”

“It was a tangible act of love that is just so heartwarming, especially in a time of crisis,” she said.

As part of the training program, clients prepared a meal for Peachtree Baptist Church, one of Gathering Industries’ supporters.

And, as for the food, “It’s been very nutritious. It’s been very balanced. It’s been very well presented. It’s very clean. It’s very appetizing looking … something that’s been done obviously with care,” Giuliano said. “The kids have been very enthusiastic.”

Mercy Care, a federally qualified health center and Atlanta’s only healthcare for the homeless program, got about 150 free meals weekly from Gathering Industries from March to June.

Volunteer Coordinator Nicole Smith said the lunches were distributed to staff, and when there were extra lunches, patients benefitted as well.

“They became known as the white bag lunches. Everybody looked forward to them,” Smith said. “It was just always something that everyone appreciated because it reminded them that we’re part of a bigger community and there were wonderful people in the world.”

Gathering Industries returned to Mercy Care in mid-August, but this time on business. The facility purchased about 250 lunches to use as a giveaway for anyone who showed up for a COVID-19 testing event.

“We just really wanted them to give them the best,” Smith said.

Other new orders have been coming in. An online clothing store with a factory in Atlanta ordered 500 sandwiches for an appreciation lunch in August, West said.

In the meantime, Gathering Industries has just opened a new revenue stream — a hot meal home delivery service.

Dishes such as lasagna, pot roast and lemon chicken in portion sizes from four to 12 servings can be ordered on its website.

Chris Hardaway and Alex Reethof prepare sandwiches for Mercy Care.

“We’re really sort of trying to figure out everything we can to keep the doors open so that when the worst of this gets past, we can get back to normal operating measures,” West said.

Since 2015, Gathering Industries has worked with local faith-based homeless shelters to train men who have successfully completed transitional programs for drug and alcohol dependencies and prison-release programs.

Several hundred clients have gone through the culinary training and management skills program, which is designed to prepare them for sustainable jobs and self-sufficiency.

The group’s founder, Alex “ChefTainer” Reethof, has worked in the hotel and restaurant industry since 1974 and at fine dining restaurants across the country.

“When clients leave, the way Alex likes to say it, is that they’ve got a full tool belt ready to use, a set of skills,” West said. “So that when somebody’s looking at their application, they’re not looking at their past. They’re looking at like, ‘I’ve been through this training program, I’ve gotten this certification, and I’m ready for this job.’ ”

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1 Comment
  1. I totally enjoyed reading this article – so very uplifting to read Great Positive News! Thank you very much appreciated Lady Donna, a Great Read!

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