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The big table

Food industry folks find place to gather, thanks to caring critic Kevin Finch

April 27, 2011

SPOKANE, Wash.

As a restaurant reviewer for several local publications, the Rev. Kevin Finch thought he’d found a recipe that combined his greatest passions.

“I love food and I love to write. I also love people,” he said.

But what he saw and heard while writing about area restaurants were a lot of disenfranchised, hurting people. The food service industry is the largest industry in the nation. It also has the highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse, Finch said.

“The divorce rate is pretty high, as well,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just the largest industry in the country ― it’s also the toughest. It can be a cauldron of stress.”

Finch was used to helping people deal with life’s pressures. His day job was associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in the Presbytery of Inland Northwest, but the minute he mentioned the word “pastor” to food service workers, they clammed up.

In fact, he noticed a sharp divide between church and food industry folks.

His two circles never seemed to overlap.

“Restaurant folks are pretty disconnected from the community because of the weird hours they work,” Finch said.

The resulting isolation can be devastating. He looked around to see who was caring for food service workers.

“I couldn’t find a single organization in the country that had put the puzzle pieces together the way I had,” Finch said.

To him, the logical place to start was to create a shared table experience ― a place for food service workers to connect around a meal. So in 2009, after 15 years as a pastor, he resigned his pastorate and launched Big Table.

Finch said financial support has come from several local family foundations and an organization in Seattle as well as individuals.

The concept is simple, he said: “If we’re serious about helping folks, it has to be about establishing relationships.”

What better way to do that than sharing a meal? To that end, local chefs give their time and prepare an exquisite meal, venue owners provide the setting and folks who would normally be waited on serve the meal.

And Finch? He brings the Big Table.

Yes, there really is a Big Table. The massive wooden structure, made from 2-by-4’s, seats 40 to 45 people and breaks into sections which Finch transports in his van.

“I call it the chiropractor’s dream,” he said, “because every time we take it apart we yell, ‘Oh! My back!’ ”

Recently, Chaps restaurant owner Celeste Shaw offered to host the meal. The guest list included baristas, wait staff and bar managers who sat at the Big Table with food industry executives and restaurant owners.

Under twinkling lights, glassware sparkled and silver gleamed.

Guests were warmly greeted at the door and offered a glass of wine.

Volunteer servers included a radio personality, a restaurant manager and a mom and her 8-year-old daughter.

Chefs Tim Hartman from Sysco Foods and Chad Michelbook from Northern Quest prepared a sumptuous seven-course meal around the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The meal began with wrath, a poblano chili prepared with seared lime, garlic cilantro crème and sea salt.

It concluded with gluttony: blue cheese cake, served with honey crisp caramel apple streusel.

Finch addressed the guests. “We hope tonight is a gift,” he said. “We have $400 ― I want you to help us give that away.

“I’m guessing that you know someone in the industry who is hurting. We’d like to surprise them with care. The goal is not to create a program ― but a community.”

Every place setting featured a card with a space to write down the name of someone in need as well as a place to suggest potential dinner guests.

Local chef Alexa Wilson has seen Big Table from many perspectives.

She’s been a guest at a dinner, prepared a meal and has witnessed the compassionate mission of the program in action.

When Wilson was head chef at Wild Sage, she had a cook who’d just moved to Spokane with his wife and two young daughters.

“For a while they lived in his car ― then in a motel. When they finally got an apartment they had nothing in it ― they slept on the floor,” Wilson recalled.

“I told Kevin about it at a Big Table dinner. Within a week we had collected a moving truck full of things!”

She called the cook and told him she’d found a couch for them and asked if they could stop by.

Wilson said watching his reaction as volunteers began to unload a truck full of home furnishings was amazing: “Big Table is just the coolest thing!”

Big Table board president Michael Hyman said one his favorite ways the organization helps those in need is the “Unexpected 20.”

When dining out, board members leave an envelope with an unexpected $20 and information about Big Table in addition to a regular tip.

The group has also helped a woman rebuild her car engine and assisted another with medical bills.

“Big Table is about caring for those who are servers to many,” Hyman said.

“The message to restaurant people is that there are people out there who really care about you.”

Carly Freeman recently experienced that caring. Freeman is a barista at Latah Latte and a student at Eastern Washington University. A few months ago someone broke into her car and stole her backpack with her new MacBook and her textbooks. She was devastated.

“I took my midterms without anything ― I had to borrow a pencil. The laptop had all my notes,” she said.

“My manager kept telling me, ‘Something’s going to happen ― we’ll figure this out.’ ”

What happened was Big Table. Freeman said, “Kevin took time to meet me for coffee and find out who I am. He asked me what I was studying in school.”

Within weeks the organization arranged for her MacBook to be replaced. “It’s just like the one that was stolen,” she said.

Finch has big plans for the Big Table.

“The table’s going on tour,” he said. In September, he’ll host a Big Table dinner in Seattle.

“If the goal is to create a community of care for folks who are highly mobile, then we are going to have to be mobile, as well,” he said. “We want to make this a national organization.”

The heart of Big Table ― the invitation-only dinners ― will continue. However, Finch said, “Because the response has been so positive and the needs have been so great, we need to expand our funding.”

The first public Big Table fundraiser will be held May 2 from 7 to 10 p.m. at Silver Auto Auctions, 2020 N. Monroe St. The evening includes dinner, an auction and raffle for a $15 donation.

Barista Freeman is eager to spread the Big Table gospel.

“People in the food industry don’t get a lot of respect,” she said. “I want my fellow servers to know there’s a community of support out there.”

Copyright 2011.  Reprinted with permission of The Spokesman-Review.  Permission is granted in the interest of public discussion and does not imply endorsement of any product, service or organization otherwise mentioned herein.

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