New homeless kitchen will serve more than meals

Doug McKee sweeps the floor at the new commercial kitchen
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

The Bridge House, which provides food and other resources to homeless in the Boulder area, is poised to cut the ribbon on a new commercial kitchen that will do much more than simply expand the amount of food the organization can serve.

The kitchen will also help the Bridge House address one of its other primary missions: Helping the homeless find jobs.

The organization plans to employ homeless individuals at the kitchen. And they won’t just be serving their peers, they’ll be getting the training they need to go on to a career in the food service industry.

The addition of the large kitchen, which will open in early July near Arapahoe Avenue and 55th Street, will also permit Bridge House to make more use of what it grows in its community garden, improving the quality and freshness of the meals it serves.

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Doug McKee has spent eight months in the Bridge House’s Ready to Work program, an initiative designed to give homeless individuals transitional work as they get back on their feet.

The Army veteran spent about 20 years in the Aspen area, regularly living outdoors in a tent because he couldn’t afford rent in the ritzy town. He worked in the restaurant business and served as a backcountry guide on snowmobile and horseback trips.

He spent some time in Glenwood Springs, living briefly in the Hotel Colorado while cooking there, then building his own home out of “cedar and mud.” He decided to sober up in a two-year substance abuse program offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Doug McKee | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

McKee says the new kitchen — and the Ready to Work program — are making it possible for him to return to the culinary career he started all those years ago. After spending recent months doing landscaping, cleaning parks and doing other odd jobs for the city of Boulder through Ready to Work, he’s just been hired to be kitchen assistant for Bridge House.

“It’s all been able to come full circle with me,” McKee says. “I’m sober and I’m cooking again. I grew up in this area, so I’m back home.”

Recalling his wilder days running with the likes of people with names like Smackwater Jack and Crazy-Eyed Jimmy in a homeless gang called the Wrecking Crew, McKee credits the Bridge House’s Ready to Work program with turning lives around.

“It’s designed to let you get your foot in the door, and you can do with it what you want,” he says. “If you put 100 percent into it, it will give you 100 percent back. … If you want out of homelessness, you can. For me, it was really a godsend.”

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Isabel McDevitt, the executive director of Bridge House, says some very interesting findings have emerged from surveys of homeless people taken at the group’s new resource center at the First Presbyterian Church since it opened seven months ago.

Of the 417 people served by the resource center over that period, 41 percent were disabled and half of them reported having mental health issues. According to survey results, 41 percent had drug/alcohol problems, and 24 percent suffered from traumatic brain injuries. About 87 percent reported being unemployed, and 54 percent said they were actively seeking employment.

That last figure is especially important, McDevitt says, because it indicates that more employment services like the Ready to Work program are needed in the area.

“We provide that stepping stone to get them ready for another job,” she explains, noting that about 75 percent of Ready to Work participants go on to find employment.

Many people think the Bridge House is just a soup kitchen, giving free food to the homeless, “but people need more than a meal to get back on their feet,” McDevitt says, referring to the organization’s entire spectrum of services as the Bridge of Opportunity. “It’s great to feed someone who needs a meal, but let’s get someone a job at the same time. … We’re just going to keep spinning our wheels as a community unless we have real resources for people.”

The new kitchen kills both birds with one stone.

The acquisition and renovation of the facility, which will initially employ about five Ready to Work participants, was made possible by a $750,000 gift from an anonymous donor. Bridge House closed on the former Seth Ellis Chocolatier property in October, and the remodeling started in April.

Workers will learn a variety of skills, including knife skills, sanitary practices, temperature control, food preparation and dishwashing.

Currently, McDevitt says, the 60,000 meals served each year at the Bridge House and area churches are prepared at the First United Methodist Church in an eight-hour-a-week timeframe that forces workers to freeze much of what is cooked and rely on prepared and processed foods. The new kitchen will allow Bridge House to move away from those practices.

McDevitt says the Bridge House already has a plot at Hawthorn Community Gardens, but the new kitchen expands the types and amounts of food that can be grown there, because it will have more space and better equipment than a church kitchen can offer.

There is even talk of using the 2,700-square-foot kitchen’s excess capacity to produce goods that can be sold to area food providers, giving the operation a way to become financially self-sufficient. Or the kitchen could even generate a signature product that could be marketed as locally made, McDevitt says.

For now, the meals cooked at the new kitchen will continue to be served at local churches and the Bridge House building. But while the quantity may initially be the same, the quality is expected to be vastly improved.

McDevitt says the emphasis on increased nutrition that the new kitchen makes possible is important, because in many cases, it may be the only meal a homeless person receives in a given day. She says Bridge House will now be able to deliver hot breakfasts every weekday, instead of only occasionally.

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McKee, the chef who has reinvented himself, seems excited as he discusses the capabilities the new kitchen will provide. He says the staff will be able to prepare fresh-made foods every day, and will be able to make their own salads, breads, desserts, soups and sauces.

His new boss, Shari Leyshon, director of nutrition and kitchen initiatives for Bridge House, says the new kitchen’s walk-in cooler will be key to expanding the offerings in both volume and variety. She says Self Solutions, the food safety training operation that serves prominent local restaurant groups like Big Red F, is partnering with the Bridge House to train its kitchen staff, and the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts has been offering classes on subjects like high-altitude baking.

“All the way around it’s a win-win-win,” she says.

McKee says full use of the Bridge House garden is expected to make a big difference among a homeless population that can suffer from health problems because of the lack of a solid nutritional foundation.

“Just that little thing can turn a few lives around,” he says. “We’re going to focus on nutrition. That’s where it starts, with good food. And karma.”