A young couple’s dream restaurant and devastating tragedy evolve
By Hank Sforzini
Photographs by Josh Norris
On Labor Day weekend of 2009, Jen and Ryan Hidinger hosted “Tacos at Hidinger’s.” Two hundred guests enjoyed handcrafted cocktails, scratch-made pazole over a fire pit and whole-roasted pig from a caja china in the couple’s backyard. They barely broke even that day; however, that gathering set the stage for Staplehouse, Bon Appétit’s best new restaurant of 2016. But the road to get there would be arduous — the Hidingers would face immense tragedy but also discover a greater purpose along the way.
The story actually began in 2000 when Jen and Ryan met at the small Indianapolis grocery store where Jen worked as a part-time cashier and office manager. Ryan, who worked as a chef, lived in the nearby apartments and would frequent the store to visit Jen.
“He would come in and buy bubble gum just so he could come through my line and say hi,” Jen said.
The couple married and moved to Atlanta in 2004. Ryan had attended culinary school at The Art Institute of Atlanta in the late ’90s before returning to Indianapolis, where he had the opportunity to train with some of the city’s best chefs. According to Jen, he always had a desire to try Atlanta again.
“I remember many times he said he felt like Atlanta, at that time, defeated him,” she said. “I still find that amazing because Atlanta was so vastly different than it is today, especially the food culture.”
After Jen graduated from Indiana University in 2004, the couple embarked on a cross-country road trip to decide where they would put down roots. Eight weeks into their trip, while visiting Austin, Texas, Hurricane Ivan pummeled the Gulf Coast. Jen flew to Atlanta and Ryan to Pensacola, Florida, to help evacuate his father and stepmother. When Ryan returned to Atlanta, the couple realized they had no money left and decided to stay.
Ryan began working as a line cook at Bacchanalia, one of Atlanta’s most-celebrated fine-dining restaurants since it opened in 1993. While he gained a name for himself in Atlanta’s restaurant scene, the couple began dreaming of opening their own restaurant. In fact, long before they ever had a brick-and-mortar building, they had a name — Staplehouse.
“Staplehouse comes from things people crave more than anything, and when you think about feeling comfortable and welcome,” Jen explains.
“Staple” was a nod to the menu’s key ingredients, and “house” signified the welcoming embrace of home they wanted their restaurant to convey.
In early 2009, they took their first step by launching Prelude to Staplehouse, a series of underground pop-up dinners they held in their tiny Grant Park bungalow in southeast Atlanta. Over the next several years, the couple hosted more than 60 sold-out supper-club-style gatherings, often selling out in less than five minutes.
Jen describes the idea of wanting to open a small husband-and-wife-run, mom-and-pop-style restaurant. Their grassroots approach proved to be a way to build relationships, as well as promote themselves organically: Ryan cooking for strangers and Jen acting as host and server, welcoming guests into their home and displaying an intimate side of the couple. Restaurant-industry royalty and gourmands filled their seats every Sunday night.
In addition to hosting dinners, they also hosted a lot of larger parties and special events, including the Labor Day whole pig roast.
Four years after beginning their popular dinner series, and after the ups and downs of endless meetings with countless banks and investors and the struggles associated with creating something from the ground up, the Hidingers caught a break.
In late summer of 2012, everything seemed to come together — they found a space, a bank that was willing to support them and investors. After facing so many hurdles, they believed they finally would see their dream become a reality. Then, everything fell apart.
Four days before Christmas, Ryan, who was 35, was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer. The cancer had invaded 90 percent of his liver and a portion of his lungs. He had a less than five percent chance of survival and was given six months to live.
“Until this point, we’re talking about someone who was extremely healthy and never missed work,” Jen said. “It was completely unexpected.”
Amid their shared terror, one of the saddest moments was when they realized Staplehouse, their dream they had so tirelessly worked towards, could never become a reality.
Said Jen: “It devastated us.”
There’s a saying in the restaurant industry: Let us do what we do best.
After the couple received Ryan’s diagnosis, Ryan Turner, Hidinger’s boss at Muss & Turner’s, where he served as chef de cuisine, approached the couple to offer help.
“He said, ‘You concentrate on what you need to do to get healthy, and let us do what we do best,’” explained Jen.
Turner, along with the Hidingers’ friends and family, came together and organized a fundraiser to provide financial support that would help with expenses not covered by insurance, including travel to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
In January 2013, almost 1,000 people attended Team Hidi, a charity gala that raised $275,000 for the Hidingers.
“It was the most selfless act of giving that I have ever witnessed,” said Jen. “It brought in a significant amount of money to help us through that journey.”
What happened next was the realization that Staplehouse could not only survive, but it could thrive by turning into something more purpose-driven. Jen refers to it as their, “pay-it-forward moment.” According to her, that’s when the Giving Kitchen was born.
“We realized there was nothing in the industry or our community to support our own in time of need,” she said.
With leftover money from Team Hidi, they co-founded The Giving Kitchen, a 501(c)(3) that provides emergency assistance grants to metro Atlanta restaurant workers facing unanticipated hardships, including illness, accident, injury, the death of a family member and natural disaster.
The couple continued to hold suppers, Ryan underwent chemotherapy and promoted The Giving Kitchen, and they moved forward with plans for Staplehouse. Then on Jan. 9, 2014, Ryan Hidinger passed away. He was 36.
Days after Ryan died, Jen and her business partners, Ryan Smith, Staplehouse’s executive chef whom the Hidingers first met at one of their dinners, and Kara, Ryan Hidinger’s sister and Staplehouse’s general manager, finally signed a lease for the space the restaurant now occupies. It opened in September 2016, exactly six years after “Tacos at Hidinger’s.”
According to Jen, she believes Ryan would be ecstatic with the accolades Staplehouse has received but would also be the first to say he didn’t deserve them.
“He would always say, ‘I’m just a cook,’ ” she said.
More notable than the lavish praise rolling in for Staplehouse, including a James Beard Foundation finalist nomination for best new restaurant of 2016, is the restaurant’s role as a for-profit subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen.
Staplehouse is a corporate restaurant with one shareholder — The Giving Kitchen. The structure is meant to maintain an ongoing, sustainable revenue stream for the nonprofit. Therefore, all after-tax profits from the restaurant ultimately benefit The Giving Kitchen.
In addition to her role as Staplehouse’s co-founder and business manager, Jen also serves as The Giving Kitchen’s spokesperson. She credits the organization with helping people focus on the things that matter during difficult times and feels the outpouring of support gave Ryan peace of mind that she believes extended his life by at least six months.
“I think Ryan would be extremely moved by the help and life-changing power The Giving Kitchen provides people like him,” she said.
To date, The Giving Kitchen has awarded 600 grants totaling more than $1 million. In 2016 alone, these grants impacted approximately 700 people. For instance, a service industry worker was attacked in the parking lot leaving work one evening. Both of her legs were broken, and she was out of work for two months while she recuperated. The Giving Kitchen paid two months of her rent and utilities and matched what her restaurant raised on her behalf. In another instance, the charity stepped in when a couple’s first child was born prematurely and could not leave the hospital for almost 10 months.
Jen believes Ryan served as an inspiration for so many because he was willing to accept his circumstance and always maintained it was “just part of his journey.”
Fortunately for so many others in the restaurant industry facing hardship, there was a humble cook who came before and inspired so many.
To learn more about The Giving Kitchen, please visit thegivingkitchen.org.