Pretty much any homeless person on any city street can tell how a soup kitchen works.
You go in, stand in line, grab a tray, get your grub, sit down and eat.
That’s why Friday at the Kansas City Community Kitchen, 750 The Paseo, Brian Oglesby looked like maybe he’d wandered through the wrong door.
First off, no line. A greeter — a greeter? — showed him to a table. No tray. A waitress took his order. She even smiled and asked him how he was.
“Fine, ma’am,” he answered softly.
Then he sat there in overalls, thick coat and cap and looked around like maybe he thought he was on a reality show. The waitress soon appeared with a glass plate of poached swai (river-farmed catfish), golden rice, sauteed carrots and fresh fruit.
“It’s different,” he said later. “They’re treating me good, like they don’t know I’m homeless.”
That’s the point. This kitchen had a ribbon-cutting Friday to celebrate its new “dining with dignity” format. The idea is to treat clients with the respect due a paying customer, and to serve up better, healthier foods. Volunteers serve as waiters and waitresses.
In time, the hope is to replace the banquet tables with small round ones.
“This place represents what we’re about now,” said Beau Heyen, president of Episcopal Community Services, which runs the kitchen. “Not only is the food different, but no more long lines and elementary school trays. Our clients will be served like they are in a restaurant.”
Episcopal Community Services, or ECS, serves hot meals five days a week at 22 food programs throughout the area. The location on the Paseo, he said, is close to the shelters and close to the homeless population.
“Food is a basic human right,” Heyen said. “This is about community. We want police officers and firefighters to come in and eat with our clients. I worked in soup kitchens in New York where there’s 8 million people. Here, a place like this can make a difference.”
And the healthier menu means less sodium, which reduces risk of diabetes and hypertension so clients aren’t going to the hospital without insurance, Heyen said.
The Kansas City Chamber of Commerce participated in Friday’s event.
The plan is to extend the service to community kitchens in Olathe, midtown, Hickman Mills and Kansas City, Kan.
Also, next week will be the start of the ECS Culinary Cornerstones training program, which will teach restaurant and culinary skills to clients through a six-month curriculum. The kitchen on the Paseo will double as a learning lab.
“We want to be the place that Kansas City restaurants call when they need good help in their kitchens,” said chef Michael Curry. “Everyone has a right to be nourished and sustained, and we’ll do that with both food and learning.”
In the final two months of the program, clients will work as interns in restaurants with ECS paying one-third of the salary, which must be at least $13 an hour.
Bishop Marty Field of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, one of Friday’s volunteer servers, said the new place is not just about helping the clients.
“I think it tells more about us than them,” he said as he doled out desserts to the servers. “Look at all these volunteers. We will uphold dignity of all persons.”
Kenneth Cabean, whose business card says he’s a “hunger relief ambassador,” greeted clients at the door. He’s worked there for years and says most clients he has seen are homeless only for a short time. This new format, he said, might change their lives.
“They’re used to standing in line for food, for a bed — they stand in line to get in the door,” he said. “See them smile today.
“This can change a man’s heart.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182