After A Tragedy, This Restaurateur Did What All Entrepreneurs Must: She Learned How To Keep Going

After A Tragedy, This Restaurateur Did What All Entrepreneurs Must: She Learned How To Keep Going
Image credit: Photographs by Stefan Ruiz
Jen Hidinger at her restaurant, Staplehouse, housed in a 1906 building that still has its original pine beams.
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15+ min read

This story appears in the May 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It was love at first sight, as Jen Hidinger always tells it. Her husband, Ryan, would joke that it took him a bit longer. “Well, for me, it was love at first sight,” Jen says. They met at a grocery store in the Indianapolis suburbs. She was 17 and worked the cash register. He was 22 and a line cook at a catering company nearby. He kept coming into her store, giving her a shy wave and buying Bubblicious gum. He bought a lot of Bubblicious.

Finally, one day, he asked if she was free that night. She wasn’t; she was babysitting some kids at church. But, she says, “I scribbled my beeper number on receipt paper. I thought he was smokin’ hot.” Soon they were on their first date. They went to the zoo and then to the arcade at the mall, where she milked a fake cow to earn tickets for cheap tchotchkes. (“We were young,” Jen says. “Couldn’t go drinking.”) A few days later, she asked her parents if she could go on a date with this older guy named Ryan -- as if that hadn’t already happened. When he arrived at her house to pick her up, her parents and brother sat him down for what has become known in their family lore as the Spanish Inquisition -- a nod to her mom, who is from Spain. “If you ever touch her,” Jen’s brother eventually said to Ryan, “it’s statutory rape.” 

That day, Ryan and Jen went to the park, and then back to Ryan’s apartment, where he cooked for her. “It was a chicken dish with artichoke and some sort of cheese situation inside,” Jen says. “It was terrible -- but for me, it was amazing.” And for Ryan, food was an act of caretaking. He’d started cooking out of necessity, for himself and for his sister, Kara, while their mom, a single parent, worked. When Mom did cook, it was often Santa Fe Chicken, a recipe from the back of a Success Rice box. They ate so many TV dinners that when Kara got a dog, she named it Stouffer.

Ryan and Jen married after she finished college. They moved to Atlanta, and while Ryan worked his way up at several of the city’s best restaurants, the two began planning their own. The name Ryan created: Staplehouse. The menu would be based on good staples -- fresh produce and whole grains, not the stuff he’d grown up on -- and they’d be welcoming diners into their culinary home. 

In 2009, as a first step toward the business, Ryan and Jen started hosting pop-up, supper-club-style dinners -- $65 per person, for five courses, served at their tidy bungalow in a fast-gentrifying part of southeast Atlanta. They happened on Sundays, Ryan’s one day off from his job. Each Thursday morning, Jen would email the menu -- “season-driven” and “mood of the kitchen,” in Ryan’s words -- to friends and contacts. After a few weeks, the meals were selling out within five minutes.

Then, in 2012, Ryan was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the gallbladder. He was 35. Doctors gave him six months.

Marriage may be the most universal of startups. It always seems like a good idea at the time. Though the failure rate is high, nobody embarks on the venture intending to quit. Elements beyond your control can have outsize effects. And there’s a constant dance between wants and needs, hopes and realities.

By all accounts, Ryan and Jen had a strong partnership. Intense but reserved, Ryan “was willing not to fully peacock, as a lot of chefs want to do,” says Ryan Turner, his boss at Muss & Turner’s, where Ryan was chef de cuisine when he fell ill. He’d worked his way up from line cook. “There was absolutely a humility there.” Jen proved no less strong-willed but more outgoing. Before he even applied for the job, for instance, she went on a recon mission, meeting Turner and testing the food so she could report back.

Together they forged a network of friends and supporters -- one that, after Ryan’s cancer diagnosis, was even more formidable than they realized. Turner and his partners convinced several restaurateurs to add a donation line to their guest checks, and helped organize a fund-raiser called Team Hidi. Within two months, the Atlanta culinary community had raised more than $275,000 for the Hidingers. Ryan had medical insurance, but the donations helped pay for what the policy did not -- including travel to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and allowing Jen to quit her job to care for Ryan.

Still, $275,000 was more than they needed. So the couple decided to start a not-for-profit to pay it forward, assisting other people in the industry who were facing crises, medical or otherwise. They called it The Giving Kitchen. This was not the startup the Hidingers had long planned, of course. Turner remembers writing Ryan a strongly worded email, insisting that they keep working on the restaurant. “I was having trouble accepting the fact that this guy, who was like a younger brother to me, was not going to realize his dream,” Turner says. “I also felt that he needed something to pull him emotionally through the battle.”

Ryan and Jen agreed. Now they had two startups to build, not one. They quickly decided that Staplehouse would be a subsidiary of The Giving Kitchen, and that all the restaurant’s proceeds would benefit the charity. A core team formed to usher the project along: Jen; Ryan’s sister, Kara, who was designated the restaurant’s front-of-house manager; and her then-fiancé, Ryan Smith, who had met Kara at one of the Hidingers’ dinners and would work on food. In 2013, though, as Hidinger continued his cancer treatments, the project hit roadblock after roadblock, from a lease for space that fell through at the last minute to struggles securing a bank loan. 

On January 9, 2014, one year and 19 days after his diagnosis, Ryan Hidinger died. He was 36.

The weekend after Ryan died, a large group of friends and family gathered to mourn him at a house in the Old Fourth Ward. It wasn’t far from the space Ryan and Jen had chosen for Staplehouse -- and while they were there, coincidentally, Jen got a call that the landlords were ready to finalize the lease. So the landlords came over with the papers, which Jen, Kara and Ryan Smith signed in front of everyone. “It was surreal,” Jen recalls. “It was a happy feeling: Wow, we’re doing this! The world is still turning! And then there were absolutely moments where we’d just break down.”

Jen tends to speak of the team rather than herself -- opting for “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “me” -- especially when she talks about the more emotional moments in the Staplehouse journey. There’s an element of defiance in this, and it reflects a subsurface steeliness in Jen that you’re able to sense if you spend enough time with her. Just after Ryan died, the questions began: “People were asking me, ‘Will you go back home now?’ It blew me away. Ryan’s not here now, but this is home. I’m not going to uproot and abandon everything we’ve done,” she says, with heavy emphasis on “we’ve.” She was incredulous that people should see Staplehouse as his project and not theirs. “Was that ignorance? I don’t know.” 

The “we” has shifted from “Ryan and Jen” to “Jen, Kara and Ryan Smith,” who, she constantly reiterates, have been equal partners in the project since before her husband died. In Ryan’s absence, they formed a stable trio, slowly pushing the restaurant toward opening. It was a decision made somewhat in naïveté. “We all decided to be business partners without having worked together,” she says. “What would fulfill us was different.” (To address the obvious, Jen’s world now contains three very important Ryans: hers; Ryan Smith, whom Kara wed two weeks after Ryan Hidinger died; and her Ryan’s old boss, Ryan Turner, who’s now president of The Giving Kitchen’s board. She alternately refers to the other Ryans by their full or last names.)

But there were some things she had to endure alone. For weeks after Ryan died, Jen avoided the kitchen in their home. She’d speed-walk from her bedroom -- their bedroom -- to the front door. Some nights, she sat on the floor of the hallway, refusing to set foot in a space she saw as sacred, just staring at his stove. “I didn’t want to touch his pans or his knives,” she says. “They were a total, direct extension of his hands.” 

She steeled herself for the long-planned annual fund-raiser, Team Hidi, which in 2014 came a month after Ryan’s death. Buoyed by the excitement over Staplehouse’s newly signed lease, it raised nearly $325,000. As media attention grew, The Giving Kitchen needed a face. Jen had studied broadcast communications at Indiana University, and had once imagined a career in advertising, but never desired to be in front of the camera. “I’m good at implementation and getting things done—the things nobody thinks about and the things nobody realizes need to be done to make things fluid,” she says. But she was the obvious candidate for this role, the best megaphone for the nonprofit’s message. So she stepped up.

The Giving Kitchen is actually run day-to-day by Stephanie Galer, a nonprofit veteran who was hired just days before Ryan’s death. She’s a daughter of restaurateurs, and she created guidelines for how TGK would disburse aid. “We pay bills directly. And we do not pay medical bills,” she tells me one day when I visit TGK’s headquarters, a large, sparsely furnished room in a converted warehouse. She also established firm criteria for grantees: Do you currently work in the restaurant industry? Was this an unanticipated crisis? Is there documentable financial need? 

Galer, a data geek, gathered information about her target market. In the 26 counties that make up metro Atlanta, there are more than 235,000 restaurant industry workers. As many as 2 percent of those workers will have an unanticipated need in any given year -- a medical emergency, a house fire, a death in the family. “Our average grant is between $1,500 and $2,000,” Galer says. “That generally covers one or two months of rent and utilities. We want to help people get back on their feet.”

Although Staplehouse was meant to be TGK’s financial engine, the restaurant’s repeated delays forced the charity to develop its own funding model. That has served it well: In 2016, TGK expects about $1 million in revenue -- about a third from donations from individuals and foundations, a third from special events like Team Hidi and a third from corporate gifts. 

Overhead is low, with just four employees in that bare-bones space. As Galer walks me through the budget, I crush an ant skittering across the table. She smiles. “We are not spending much money on our office,” she says. This year, TGK plans to disburse $500,000 in grants -- twice what it gave away last year. 

One afternoon, I visit a TGK grantee, Rhonda Gilliard, at her neat home on Atlanta’s west side. She had set out a bowl of animal crackers -- “my favorite,” she says -- for our meeting.

A bartender and server, Gilliard was working two jobs until she was attacked late one December night while walking to her car. She has little memory of what happened, but her crutches, the cast on her left leg and the plate and screw holding her fibula and tibia together tell some of the story. “That first week after my surgery, I didn’t know what was going to happen. You’re thinking, How fast will I be able to recover? Because the bills are just coming in.

Gilliard normally earns $2.13 an hour plus tips. Last year, she earned about $36,000 before taxes. While her bosses have promised to hold her job for her, she has had no income since her attack. Within weeks, the $1,000 in her savings account was gone. TGK funds have since helped her cover two months of rent; two months of gas, water, phone and electric bills; and some of her car and car--insurance payments -- $4,670 in all. The effect has been far beyond financial. “This has humbled me. It’s opening me up to ask for help and receive it,” Gilliard says. “I’m scared of owing people anything. I never knew there were people willing to help just because.” 

Jen will always remember 2014 as the year of endless bureaucracy. “It was snail’s pace,” she says, navigating hearing after hearing, form after form, permit meeting after permit meeting. 

Then, the Friday afternoon before Team Hidi 2015, she got a call while at the florist picking up the flowers for the fund-raiser: Staplehouse’s building permits had finally come through. She squealed. Then she cried. “And the first thing I did after that was call Kara and Ryan,” she says. “The fact that it was tangible, the fact that we were going to start to build—this was huge. This was happening! And Ryan” -- her late Ryan -- “helped us to get it today, of all days.”

Staplehouse finally opened for business last September. Its home, two blocks from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace, is a two-story brick building built in 1906. Aptly, given the restaurant’s name, it used to be a grocery. 

Its first couple of days were full, celebratory and bittersweet. Surveying all the friends who came to honor her husband’s memory and support the realization of this dream, Jen couldn’t stop herself from thinking of Ryan constantly: He should be here. He should be here with everybody else. 

But once the afterglow of opening faded, business was achingly slow. On its worst night, about a month after opening, Staplehouse served only 12 customers. Conditions were less than ideal: The restaurant had not yet secured its liquor license, and Staplehouse’s biggest bursts of publicity came during Ryan’s illness. “We got all that press when we had nothing to sell,” Jen says. But she insists that, among her team, there has never been any thought or discussion of failure or blame. “This is a marriage,” she says of her operating partnership with Kara and Ryan Smith. “As long as we come to the table with successes and failures, when we need help and where we can align, it will work.” 

The food has never been the problem. The menu isn’t what it would have been under Hidinger, who was mindful of not hovering posthumously over Smith’s shoulder. “Ryan was simplistic, methodical -- just take the ingredients and let them shine,” Smith tells me during a break from prep one afternoon. The menu does often offer a Ryan favorite, like chicken wings, and there’s always Budweiser, one of his staples, in the fridge. “But the last one-on-one I had with him, probably a week and a half before he passed away, he said, ‘It’s now your baby. I don’t want you to overthink making it my restaurant.’”

Smith and his team have run in an elegant but unfussy direction. He’s dogmatic about eating seasonally. (Kara laughingly tells me of being chided by him one winter day, when he saw that their 10-month-old daughter, Lillian, was eating asparagus puree. “Where did you get that?” he asked. “It’s not in season.”) Though his cooking isn’t explicitly regional, he likes to keep things as local as possible -- he and his chefs forage juniper berries from Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood, and he favors Southern ingredients like benne flour and Charleston Gold rice.

Though you wouldn’t know it from what appears on the plate, Smith works hard to keep food costs relatively low. Rather than discarding the beef fat trimmed from a rib eye, for instance, he ages it, renders it, emulsifies it into milk with a bit of pectin and then aerates it to create a velvety sauce. When I tasted it on a dish of broccoli, spinach and celery, the reincarnated fat added meaty complexity to otherwise austere vegetables.

Staplehouse’s stumbles were operational. Early on, the team realized trouble was beginning even before guests arrived. Staplehouse was the first restaurant in Atlanta to use an online booking system called Tock. Pioneered by a partner in Chicago’s famed Alinea and Next restaurants, Tock was built around the idea of ticketed dinners; when you make your reservation, you pay up front -- tax, tip and all. Your meal is your night’s entertainment. “We didn’t communicate it properly,” Kara says. “We confused people. They didn’t realize you could also just come.”

The confusion continued upon arrival. Inspired in part by the pop-up dinners Ryan Hidinger served, the main offering at Staplehouse has always been an $85, five-course tasting menu. ln a dream world, Smith says, he would serve nothing else. But established Atlanta restaurants have struggled with that model; the celebrated Bacchanalia, where Ryan Hidinger was once a line cook, recently gave up and went all à la carte. So in a concession to the marketplace, the Staplehouse team offered both options -- with limitations. In the dining room, only the tasting menu was served. At the bar, you could order, à la carte, the dishes from the tasting menu. And outside, on the covered patio, you could order from the regular à la carte menu. “People would come in and say, ‘So I can’t sit right there and order that food?’” Kara says. “It wasn’t very welcoming.” 

Three months after opening, they adjusted. Now there’s a tasting menu, which they’d like you to book ahead, and there’s à la carte. Walk-ins can ask if the tasting menu is available, and the kitchen will serve it if they can. It doesn’t matter where you sit.

Kara has thought hard about how to maximize the per-person average (PPA) that restaurants use as a measure of profitability. For regular service, the restaurant needs to do two seatings per night at half its tables while not over-pressuring the kitchen. So Kara recently created a new reservations template, offering à la carte reservations at 6 and 6:30 -- which would allow them to turn those tables at least once -- and tasting-menu bookings at 7:30 and 8:30. If the tables reserved for tasting menus aren’t booked, Kara frees them up for à la cartes and walk-ins. The goal: to serve, on a typical weeknight, 30 tasting--menu guests and 36 à la carte per night, with a $60 PPA, not including drinks. 

Six months after opening, Staplehouse also replaced Sunday dinner with brunch. “We always intended Sunday to be about the industry,” Jen says. “We wanted to be the place where they went on Sunday.” But there was a business justification, too. Sunday was their slowest evening. Though the PPA for brunch is in the $30 to $40 range, “there’s the ability to get 140 or 150 people in the door.” 

The changes, Jen says, reflect lessons learned from “a crash course in adaptability. We’ve made mistakes, and we will make mistakes.” She seems confident that with just a slight but consistent bump in traffic, Staplehouse will soon be cash-flow-positive.

We’re talking in the Staplehouse office, upstairs from the dining room, early one morning. I ask Jen about the nonfinancial aspects of the business. Sometimes, in the solitude of the mornings, the emotions can feel more acute. On November 12, 2015—what would have been her 10th wedding anniversary, and the first time she marked the occasion since Staplehouse opened—she sat at her desk and sobbed all morning. She wished more than anything that Ryan were there to see the fulfillment of his dream—their dream.

None of this would have been possible without her in-laws turned business partners. “The moments when I feel sweet serenity are when I see Kara and Smith being affectionate, because I appreciate that they have that as husband and wife,” she says. “I wish I did, too, to be honest.” And yet, she worries that, amid the unrelenting pressures of running this family business, they’ve lost the balance between “family” and “business.” “We’re here all the time. But we never see each other outside work. With all the stressors we have, it would probably be good if we could drink together and decompress,” she says. “Outside of work, how are we relating? Well, we don’t.”

The phone interrupts our conversation. She locks eyes with me, and says, “Pause!” She then picks up the phone, takes a breath, layers some extra honey into her voice and says, “Staplehouse. This is Jen. How can we help?”

Staplehouse is closed on Tuesdays. So one Tuesday evening, I have dinner with Jen and her boyfriend, John, at Kimball House, a restaurant in nearby Decatur. (It’s not quite right to say Jen has moved on—“I will always love Ryan,” she says, and John is not a replacement. He’s in the industry, too, though his specialty is drink, not food, and he has participated in Team Hidi fund-raisers.) Jen seems relaxed and reflective, especially after the oysters and Champagne come. “I did not understand how closed, on a spiritual level, doors were to me,” she says. She muses on who she was before Ryan’s diagnosis and death, and how the journey has changed her. “I was terrified of death. Now I’m beyond not afraid. I’m grateful for that.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” she asks me.

“No,” I say. “I don’t think so.” 

Later that week, The New York Times includes Staplehouse in a piece about Atlanta’s resurgent food scene. Then the James Beard Awards shortlist is released; Staplehouse is a nominee for Best New Restaurant, and Ryan Smith gets a nod for Best Chef: Southeast. The phone begins ringing every few minutes with reservation requests. That Saturday is its busiest to date, with 105 customers.

Only then do I realize what I should have said in response to Jen’s question: I may not believe in reincarnation, but I do believe in life after death.  

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