This summer, chef Chad Rosenthal will open a Philadelphia branch of his Ambler barbecue-and-blues restaurant, The Lucky Well. Rosenthal is building a separate prep kitchen in the Spring Arts building at 990 Spring Garden St. to create rubs and sauces, as he intends to open multiple locations and believes in the efficiency of a commissary.
In a twist, Rosenthal wants this commissary to hire homeless people and people living in poverty to give them a stepping-stone to a better life. He's launched a Kickstarter to fund the project, and he says he is getting interest from not only individuals but government agencies. Katie Everett — a longtime friend whose specialty is cause-focused event production and marketing for groups such as Philabundance, Covenant House, and Project HOME — is helping. "Lack of employment is the biggest barrier to self-sufficiency," Everett said.
I spoke with Rosenthal at his Ambler location.
How did this idea come up?
On Thanksgiving, I fed a shelter and it wasn't just like "Chad brings barbecue, sets up chafers, and leaves." It was like a family-style dinner, where we sat down. There were 40 men and women, and I got to meet these people and all that good stuff. One thing led to another, I'm eating with these 40 great people that were homeless or definitely in poverty, and they were competent people.
I know that Project HOME helps these people and gives them opportunities to get a job, to try to make it on their own, to get their own apartment. I started reading up on it. Philadelphia is one of the number one cities in poverty over the last 10 years for large cities, which I never knew.
These aren't all people who are sitting there with a can trying to collect coins. These are people that are trying to do great things. They just can't. They just can't figure it out. Like how to find that opportunity and how to get to that next level, and there's just no opportunity there. At the same time, we were already successful here, we're growing and creating opportunities there. One morning I was like, "What if I could help those people?"
In the restaurant business, we really don't make that much money. I'm lucky enough to be able to expand it into multiple locations and hopefully we keep doing well. People love the food, the music scene, so if I'm able to grow the concept and then at the same time give back and make this work, it's a win-win.
What kind of work will these people do?
They're not hard tasks. We'll teach someone how to mix my dry rub. I have a company that does it in Virginia the last 15 years. I'm paying way too much money for it, so I knew I had to bring that in-house. All of our barbecue sauce, simple recipes, and we'll probably start off with sauces and sides. I'm going to be leaning on Katie to partner with companies to make it happen. We need to not only buy equipment and vehicles and things like that, but figure out how to hire these people, how to pay these people. You have to do it the right way, and hire these agencies to work with, and we're thinking maybe three days a week. We're going to have a little side kitchen.
So it won’t be The Lucky Well, per se.
This side business will be a nonprofit or a charity, and it can turn into something really amazing. What I love in the restaurant is feeding people and giving them that atmosphere and making people happy. I'm in the kitchen all the time, but I'm out here in the dining room talking to everyone. It's like if I'm able to touch people and help people doing what I do, it's awesome.
What is the Kickstarter itself for?
It's funding the actual kitchen. It's funding vehicles. The legal work. It's funding hiring these people. It's funding getting the agencies to make it happen, to partner with these agencies. We're going to have to buy new sets of burners, prep tables, and work areas.
What’s the goal?
There's no reason why we can't bring in these people at Lucky Well. There's no reason why they can't take that step and become a line cook or a dishwasher or who knows? I mean, you hear these stories like, there's someone who came from nothing. That's like the main goal, to be able to give these guys the small opportunity to work here and to really help a concept with things that they need, and then hopefully move into a real full-time position. In my head, we're thinking, it's like a three-day-a-week thing, two or three people at a time. I'm thinking in the beginning, we'll probably be able to help out like 12 to 15 people, part time. I think it'll a be a rotation to be able to help a number of people, vs. just, like, hiring three guys that come every week. Maybe other restaurants I partner with also will want to get in on this program. Some restaurant groups have a commissary. It's a model that works with a lot of quick-service restaurants. If this works, you will be able to train people to make all kinds of things.
One way or another, you’re going to have a prep kitchen in there.
We need a prep kitchen either way. I want to split into a separate kitchen and make it a separate business. I think if it's a separate business, we can prove more how it's working for our concept.
What has the reaction been like to the Kickstarter?
It's been shared a lot on social media. I know that 4,000 people said this is the greatest thing ever, but if those 4,000 people gave 20 bucks, we'd be almost there, right? We need the money to make it happen. But if it doesn't happen, we'll see how close we get. We might fund it ourselves. I'm so behind this that if we don't get the money, I'll work other outlets to get the money. Maybe we can get some grant money to make it happen.