Chef David Heide gives a lay of the land at the future home of Little John's Kitchen, a pay-what-you-can restaurant for people at all income levels where he’ll also train and help veterans and provide basic food preparation for nonprofits and meat processing for struggling farmers. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)
Chef David Heide gives a lay of the land at the future home of Little John's Kitchen, a pay-what-you-can restaurant for people at all income levels where he’ll also train and help veterans and provide basic food preparation for nonprofits and meat processing for struggling farmers. (Photo by Christina Lieffring)

“It just really helps us to feel like we’re still a part of the community, even when we’re closed down.”

The idea of opening a pay-what-you-can restaurant had been simmering in Chef Dave Heide’s mind long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. So when he had to switch his restaurant, Liliana’s, to takeout only, and the pandemic and economic fallout were hitting people’s pantries, he decided now was as good a time as any.

The project made headlines when 8-year-old Morgan Marsh-McGlone set up a virtual lemonade stand last spring to raise funds for hungry families. She donated the $25,000 she raised to Heide’s nonprofit, pay-what-you-can restaurant, Little John’s Kitchen. Heide said those funds could feed 600 families for a week.

There’s plenty of room at the venture’s 25,000-square-foot future home at 5302 Verona Road. Heide has big plans for how he’s going to use every square inch, from training and helping veterans, to feeding people at all income levels, to providing basic food preparation for nonprofits and meat processing for struggling farmers. When that space will be able to open its doors depends on ongoing fundraising efforts. 

Heide’s plans may be particularly ambitious, but he’s not alone. While the restaurant industry was hit hard by the pandemic, and legislative hurdles have not made their rebound any easier, many small, locally owned establishments went out of their way to help employees, customers, and their community by doing what they do best: making and serving food for the hungry.

Little John’s Kitchen

For anyone who’s followed food and hunger issues in the US, Heide’s ambitious plans for Little John’s Kitchen tick all the boxes. 

The meals are made from donated items that grocery stores can no longer sell, such as day-old fresh ground beef and produce that Heide said is better than what he got for Liliana’s. That’s because grocery stores need food that will stay fresh for at least another week after customers purchase it.  

Most of Little John’s Kitchen’s operations are handled in Liliana’s vacated dining room, where staff and volunteers put out 1,600 meals per week that are distributed to people in need through area nonprofits. But once he gets Little John’s permanent home set up, he’s confident he’ll be able to scale up quickly. Specifically, he said their goal is to have locations in 10 different states within 10 years.

“We’ve got a pretty rapid and aggressive expansion plan to try and help with food insecurity because it is, has been, and will be a major issue to deal with,” he said.

Once they’re able to open their doors, the meals will be prepared by veterans undergoing a six-month chef training program that will pay $15 an hour. Heide has friends who are veterans and said that he has seen them struggle with readjusting to civilian life and “not feeling like they could find a place to fit in.” After working in the highly structured hierarchy of the armed forces, Heide thought the hierarchy of a professional kitchen would be familiar, even comforting. 

“I’ve always felt this sense of brotherhood and community in the kitchen space,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that there was a safe space where they could come in and feel like they had a part of a family and feel like they have that connection again.”

He also knows that working on food scarcity and environmental issues will attract the attention of people left-of-center. He hopes that by working with veterans, people from the political right could get behind Little John’s Kitchen as well. 

“We wanted veterans to help break down walls and barriers so that people on both sides of the aisle would see the value in our project,” Heide said. 

A social worker will also be on-site at Little John’s to help the veterans access health care, housing, and mental health resources. 

Beside the dining area will be a 3,000 square-foot community space for hosting events, including town halls and elections.

The space will also include a commissary kitchen where food will be prepared for nonprofits that work with food insecurity but don’t have access to a kitchen. There, they will be able to prepare large quantities of food that can be easily served or distributed to families so they can heat it up at home. 

Little John’s Kitchen will also have a meat processing section, where farmers can bring butchered meat to have it made into items like sausage, ham, or bacon. The goal is to help local farmers, who may have trouble accessing meat processing, get more value out of their meat.

Both the commissary kitchen and meat processing will be for-profit B corporations that will support the expansion of Little John’s into other cities and even other states. 

Other Restaurants Pitching In

Heide is by no means the only restaurateur who’s stepped up to help others during the pandemic. Gov. Tony Evers and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. recognized The Abbey in De Pere and the Menomonie Market Food Co-op for prioritizing their employees’ salaries, taking public safety precautions, and creating meal vouchers for people in need. 

Bounce Milwaukee, a restaurant and amusement center, hasn’t been open since last March due to the pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped its space from being used for good. 

Bounce co-owners Becky Cooper and her husband, Ryan Clancy, are keeping the center closed for now, and likely until sometime in the summer. But they’ve put the huge space to use by making it available to community groups such as Ayuda Mutua, which supports Milwaukee’s Spanish-speaking community, and causes like blood drives, medic training, and food drives.

Becky Cooper and her husband, Ryan Clancy, closed their restaurant and family amusement center, Bounce Milwaukee, last March when the coronavirus pandemic reached Wisconsin. While the couple has endured severe economic hardship, Cooper said they do not regret their decision to remain closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Cooper said the decision to donate the space was keeping in line with her and her husband’s mission to make their business an integral part of the community.

“We decided the best way to do that was to partner with organizations who are doing the best work for the communities that were most in need during the pandemic,” Cooper said.

She added, “It just really helps us to feel like we’re still a part of the community, even when we’re closed down.”

Gregory León, owner of Spanish-Portuguese restaurant Amilinda in downtown Milwaukee, kept his dining space closed throughout the pandemic until early March, apart from a few-week stint in the fall. The restaurant was relegated to takeout, but they put some meals toward good causes in that time, providing free meals for first responders and hospital workers.

León also got involved making meals for World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that donates meals to survivors of natural disasters. The Tandem, another Milwaukee restaurant, used grant money from World Central Kitchen to pay León and other struggling restaurants for free meals they offered to the community.

Amilinda also ran its own similar operation with restaurants from Milwaukee’s south side, León said. León said he also continued his existing relationship with Tables Across Borders, an organization that brings refugee chefs into established restaurants to share their cultures and act as guest chefs.

Not only have Amilinda’s charitable efforts been good for the community, León said, but they’ve also been good for business.

“A lot of stuff like that has helped us, because to-go business just doesn’t cut the mustard,” León said.

Legislative Lessons

For some restaurants, the additional income from their charitable work may put their COVID-19 assistance at risk. 

Heide started his NomNomNom meal kits in order to support local family farms; the kits would include produce from those farms with a recipe developed by an area chef. Of the $200,000 the NomNomNom kits brought in, Heide kept less than $100 and the rest went to the area farms.

But on paper, the $200,000 looked like restaurant sales, which exceeded the income limits for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This could have jeopardized Liliana’s chances of receiving a second PPP loan, though it did secure one. But Heide said he knows restaurants that have taken on similar projects, such as distributing food at-cost, and lost their PPP loans because of that income. 

“I see a lot of restaurateurs chipping in together to try and help pull the entire nation and the entire community out from what could be something really scary and horrible and try and provide them comfort,” Heide said. “And yet we’re the ones that keep getting trampled.”

As the Biden administration has taken steps to expand the PPP to assist the businesses left behind by previous funding rounds, Heide said he wants to see future relief for small businesses take into consideration the extra steps some have taken to support their employees and community during the pandemic. 

“I think there isn’t a person in America who doesn’t know that restaurants have been in trouble during the whole COVID thing. The entire hospitality industry has been tanked,” Heide said. “A lot of our legislation is set up to kind of undermine these local employers.”