Blog · October 10, 2019
Local Seattle Spotlight: Big Table
How Big Table is Serving the People Who Serve Us
From its start tucked away in the back of Pike Place Market, Gourmondo has always been a brand that, at its core, believes in people. Back in Gourmondo’s earliest Market days, it wasn’t enough for the founding partners to work hard: they needed the support of a community to get by and really start thriving.
Ask anyone who has worked in hospitality and you’ll find that community is the cornerstone of an industry where hours are long, wages are low, margins are thin and working nights and weekends means time-off is flipped from the rest of the working community.
This is an industry built on providing others with what they need— a delicious meal, a warm welcome to the table— filled with people working incredibly hard often with very limited safety nets of their own.
Gourmondo Chef Tyler Hefford-Anderson is on the board of an organization aimed at mobilizing both those within the hospitality industry and all of us who benefit from it to offer tangible and ongoing support for those food service and hotel workers most at risk and in need of the community’s care. With the launch of Gourmondo’s new box lunch program, Big Table Box, we are excited to support this critical local cause and share its story here.
Big Table, a Seattle-based non-profit founded in the Northwest in 2009, started with a simple observation followed by some eye-opening research. While moonlighting as a food critic in the early 2000s, Big Table Executive Director Kevin Finch got his first real window into the lives of the people behind the kitchen door. And what he found there, behind the warm service-industry smiles, was a community in need.
The restaurant and hospitality business is twice the size of any other industry in the country and continues to grow at a faster rate than any other. The industry offers the lowest barriers to employment of any industry in the nation, creating an important opportunity for anyone willing and able to work. But this also means the hospitality industry catches the highest concentration of those in vulnerable demographics— single parents, at-risk teens, immigrants and ex-felons trying to turn life around.
With so many in the restaurant and hospitality industry in at-risk positions, it’s no wonder the industry has the highest rates of alcohol and drug addiction, divorce and broken relationships, redline stress levels, job instability, and rapid turnover. At least 43% of those in the industry fall below the “survival” income line set by economists. That is twice as many people below the official poverty line as compared with any other industry.
Focusing care on employees in the hospitality industry does two things: it gives direct, community-based access to the highest concentration of need, and it provides an outlet for the greater community to give back to the people who serve us every day.
And for Big Table, it started with a literal big table. Searching for an entry point to start accessing the needs of this community, Finch and his team built a table seating 48 for the first Big Table community dinner. How better to start the conversation on supporting the hospitality community than by flipping the script and treating the people who serve us every day to a delectable shared meal? And more than food is shared when Big Table fills a room with dishwashers, line cooks, servers and housekeepers to enjoy a 6 to 7 course meal from one of Seattle’s finest chefs. People get to know one another and share stories and resources, they start to build a shared safety net that keeps our community thriving.
And that’s exactly how Big Table came to develop its foundational care program. Finch had great people in one room, but still had to determine the needs of those present and those in the broader community. At the very first Big Table dinner, Finch handed out 3x5’’ cards and asked people to write down the name of someone in need. This interpersonal approach shaped the core of what Big Table provides, transforming into the Big Table Referral Model that is the bread-and-butter care program of the organization today.
How it works is simple and it has produced some pretty inspiring results. When someone in the industry, often a colleague or manager, sees someone in crisis, they can submit a personal referral to Big Table. A Big Table contact will then respond directly and personally, seeking to meet an immediate crisis need as quickly as possible related to any of Big Table’s five impact areas— mental and emotional health, job readiness, addiction recovery, housing stability and medical and dental care— partnering with the community’s best resource providers to supply care. Then, integral to Big Table’s mission, a relationship doesn’t end when the immediate crisis need is met: Big Table team members continue to walk alongside care recipients to provide longer-term coaching and mentoring. This ongoing, judgment-free relationship is what care recipients say gives them continued hope and direction.
This interpersonal model of care is the secret to the depth of impact Big Table has on its care recipients’ lives. Unlike the hot-line method where individuals call-in to ask for care, Big Table’s referral model accomplishes a range of benefits to strengthen the effectiveness of Big Table’s care. First, Big Table is able to leverage the existing community in place to quickly identify and target the most critical needs for the care recipient. Second, the switch from the hot-line method effectively eliminates requests from those trying to take advantage of the system. And third, it makes for a path out of isolation from those who feel shame around asking for help for themselves. The combination of the referral model and the ongoing care that individuals receive post-referral makes a unique impact on people who are nearing the edge. Big Table is able to intervene and catch them with the full support of a loving community before they fall.
So what does care with Big Table look like? Care is personalized per recipient based on what the immediate need is. Gourmondo Chef Tyler Hefford-Anderson has “seen mothers helped off of the street with their children, a roof provided after a devastating fire, hot water heaters repaired, bicycles purchased, medical bills paid, and many, many conversations over coffee.” Whether it’s fixing a car so someone can make it to work or helping with rent so a family doesn’t lose their housing, Big Table mobilizes to solve the need and sticks with people through the transition.
Chef Hefford-Anderson joined the board of Big Table, affectionately referred to as the “Kitchen Cabinet,” in 2017 after attending a particularly inspiring Big Table dinner. As the former Executive Chef of an impressive roster of Seattle institutions, including the Seattle Tennis Club and Columbia Tower Club, Hefford-Anderson made for a perfect candidate to act as Big Table’s “Chef Liaison,” connecting local chefs to the organization for Big Table dinners.
Hefford-Anderson has his own connection to the work Big Table does. Several years ago, Hefford-Anderson heard that a good friend, one of his groomsmen, was unable to stand on the line in the kitchen of the high-end restaurant where he was working. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of terminal cancer, preventing him from using his legs normally. A newly-formed Big Table came to walk alongside this friend in the time prior to his passing, offering not only financial but spiritual support, hosting a beautiful dinner and remaining confidants in his end-of-life journey. Hefford-Anderson noted, “this person was a passionate culinarian and believed in the tenants of hospitality, good food and service to others. The Big Table walked alongside him, living those same beliefs when he needed them most.”
For Chef Hefford-Anderson, the impact is obvious. “That is what they do, they serve the population with the highest concentration of need in our country. They help to catch people before they fall, but even if they do, the support and encouragement of the entire Big Table team is always there. I have personally seen and heard so many testimonials of people who say, ‘Big Table saved my life, my family, my marriage, my sanity. They saved me.’ How can I not be involved with a team of people with a mission like that?”
Working with Gourmondo as the Cafe Chef, Chef Hefford-Anderson finds himself in good company when it comes to taking the tenants of hospitality seriously within a food service staff. After twenty years, Gourmondo still uses the same kitchen production schedule designed so that the kitchen crew can get off in time to pick their kids up from school. And at 10:15am every day, production stops so that kitchen teams can have family lunch together. The necessity for properly respecting the time and talents of an industry team and of creating a community network around a shared table are values Gourmondo and Big Table find centrally in common.
Now Gourmondo is taking the next step in its support of Big Table with its brand new program, The Big Table Box. The new Big Table Box provides a box lunch option with a rotating Chef’s Special, with a portion of all proceeds going directly to Big Table to support its programs. Each box lunch contains a special Big Table postcard so that recipients can learn more about Big Table’s mission and spread the word on this incredibly impactful cause.
If you want to learn more about Big Table’s mission and find out how you can support, head to their website Big Table.