Bread & Brew: Stone Soup is a kitchen with a mission
Committed to cooking up a good cause, Stone Soup opened last July in a corner space on Northwest Broadway, where the borders of Old Town and the Pearl District meet.
The restaurant serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and hosts a happy hour from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. They cater events and rent their space for private parties at a reasonable rate.
Here, Portlanders can experience deeper flavors than the typical grab 'n' go lunch. That's because the red curry squash soup and turkey confit sandwich on the menu support a critical mission: job training for people facing barriers to employment or who are at risk of homelessness.
Owners Craig and Ronit Gerard came to Portland nine years ago with the idea of stepping up and opening a soup kitchen.
They soon realized that they wanted a project that operated more on the job training side, and teamed up with a Seattle group called FareStart. One of FareStart's programs, Catalyst Kitchens, teaches nonprofits like theirs how to train people with barriers to employment.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler ordered a banh mi sandwich for lunch recently.
"They're doing incredible work in our community," Wheeler said. "They create delicious meals, and the fact that it's for a great cause makes it even better."
At a time when people are celebrating Thanksgiving, Stone Soup gives opportunity — culinary training for struggling people, such as single moms, the formerly incarcerated, people with mental health issues and addiction challenges.
The program accepts six people at time. Every month a new group of six or so arrives to begin a 12-week training program that blends kitchen and life skills to offer a new start and a means of financial support. A restaurant job is the prize. Nothing glamorous, just honest shift work and a shot at becoming more skilled.
Portland's chefs know what it takes to power a kitchen and want to lend a hand. John Gorham of the Toro Bravo family of restaurants, Irving Street Kitchen and New Seasons Markets each host externships that consist of a weeklong trial that is the culmination of the graduate's 12-week training period. If all goes well, a job is offered.
Stone Soup, 306 N.W. Broadway, is on the corner of Northwest Everett and Broadway, where Gilt Club ran the block from 2005 to 2014. Gilt's thick curtains and clubby booths are long gone, replaced by simple four-tops and mismatched chairs donated from Cafe Umbria and the Marriott Hotel. Windows offer views of Portland's mixed bag: Stag, a male strip club; the Pendleton Woolen Mills showroom; WeWork, a co-working space on the other side of Broadway; and the economy.
Recently, participants in white caps met at a table for a morning meeting with chef trainer Connor Braddock. Over in the kitchen, chef instructor Scott Dolich prepared a meal for them. Dolich is a celebrated chef with deep Portland ties. His influence explains the above-average fare at Stone Soup.
The food is straight-up but delicious, with a playful menu. The Peter & Nance Grain Salad is named for the couple who quizzed their waitress about Colin the chicken in the famous scene from "Portlandia" that was filmed there.
Dolich ran nearby Park Kitchen for 15 years and is a longtime volunteer at p:ear, which assists homeless youth. These days he's busy running Stone Soup's daily lunch and training students.
"We start off each session with a meal," Dolich said, as he cut up whole chickens for an event later in the week. "Quite simply because it's hard to learn if you're hungry."
Working here may be a far cry from turning out meals for the more privileged foodie class, but satisfies a deeper need.
"These people are used to being unseen. This is their chance to take control of what they can and not be a spectator," he added.
Dolich and the Gerards balance sympathy with business realities. "We walk the line," Craig Gerard said. "Most of these people have been through trauma. They may need a second, third or even a fourth chance."
Their short-term goal is to keep the training going without relying too heavily on participants to run the day-to-day business. Finding child care, meeting a parole officer or facing down a mental health challenge are just everyday hurdles.
"We want them to know it's OK to fail. If you fail, do it here, and learn how to recover from it," Craig Gerard said.
Participants come to the program by referral from social service agencies like Central City Concern and Human Solutions.
"We want the enrollees to have a case worker and some wraparound services," said Craig Gerard. They must have housing when they enter the program and present a resume.
Attrition is real. Just three to four students per group graduate. An intensive course in food safety makes up week one. At tier two, students work in Stone Soup's restaurant, making their way through its different stations. A stipend of $780 is awarded at this point.
Tier three focuses on job readiness. Resumes are finessed and mock interviews are held. They take trips to hotels and farms so they can see where the food comes from, where it goes and imagine how they fit into the industry. Life skills are woven through every stage. The last step is an externship and, hopefully, a job offer.
The Gerards spent a decade overseas. Ronit Gerard worked in the U.S. Foreign Service with posts in Senegal, Cambodia and Egypt before the couple settled in Portland nine years ago. Extended family is in Portland, including a sister, a 94-year-old grandmother and Ronit's mother. These days Ronit is employed as a global food adviser for a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
For Stone Soup, Craig Gerard is executive director and Ronit Gerard co-founder and board president.
Asked why they launched this project, Craig Gerard said that after a relative died and left them an inheritance they wanted to honor his memory.
"It's hard to see all the crises going on in Portland and not want to do something. We wanted to have an impact that was long-lasting, and to look at our kids and say, 'we're doing our best.' When we got to Portland we had an idea, and we knew Portland could work for this idea. Then we realized that the town may need it even more than we do. So for us, it's become almost a sense of duty," he said.
The Gerards are confident Stone Soup will succeed if they stay focused and get revenue streams in line.
But, they'll need big lunch rushes and deep pipelines of support to keep things well-seasoned and cooking in their kitchen. Like the fable it's named after, Stone Soup is a meal that tastes best shared.
For details, see Stone Soup's website, www.stonesouppdx.com.
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