Posted on December 16, 2015 at 6:00 am
Imagine sitting at an enormous table with 47 other people. Now imagine a seven course meal made by amazing chefs. At the end of this lavish meal, there is no check to pay. No need to tip your servers—it’s all free. You were invited with no expectations but that you would relax and enjoy. It sounds too good to be true, but in Spokane, this happens four times a year thanks to the work of Big Table.
Big Table is a local non-profit that specifically serves those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Through a good friend who works with Big Table, I’ve learned just how brutal this industry can be. Many working these jobs are barely getting by. Often they work multiple jobs and have little to no safety net. Many jobs require long hours, nights, and weekends. The schedule required can put a strain on even the strongest of relationships. The restaurant and hospitality industry has the highest rate of drug and alcohol abuse. It’s also the largest industry in the country with close to double the number of employees than any other.
Despite its size, when Northwest food writer and restaurant critic Kevin Finch went looking for organizations serving people in this industry, he discovered there weren’t any. So in 2009, he founded Big Table right here in Spokane. And this year, he’s expanded to Seattle as well.
Determined to create an organization focused on relationships, not just programs, Finch decided to begin with a literal big table where people could gather around good food. Seated at the Big Table you’ll find dishwashers and servers next to housekeepers and chefs, all enjoying the chance to be the one served instead of the one serving. After all, what better way to get to know people than over a good meal? At the end of the meal, Big Table shares a little about their mission, and provides an opportunity for guests to refer their coworkers who are in need.
So after the meal is eaten, the dishes are done, and the large table is packed away, what happens next? Big Table looks at the needs that people shared and goes to work. They want to transform the lives of those struggling to make it day by day and help them reach a place of stability. This might mean diapers for a single dad, furnishing an apartment for a new immigrant, or helping pay for a server’s physical therapy after a car accident. As Big Table cares for those in transition or in crisis, they build relationships. The goal isn’t just to put out fires, it’s to help people flourish. This is just a small taste of what Big Table is about.
With the holiday season upon us, life in the restaurant and hospitality industry will only get more harried and stressful. While many of us look forward to time away from work to celebrate with loved ones, for many working in this industry a day off to celebrate is out of reach. Instead, they will be working on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, most of them making minimum wage. It can be a sad and lonely time for those who long to be home with family instead of standing at a deep fryer or behind the cash register. But what if there was a way to brighten their day, even just a little bit? This is the goal of Big Table’s Holiday Blitz.
So what exactly is a Holiday Blitz? On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day people will show up unannounced at fast food restaurants all around Spokane and give each of the employees working a $20 bill in a “Holiday Care Blitz” envelope. While $20 might not sound like much, it can mean a lot to somebody just trying to get by. In the first year of the Blitz, one recipient said the $20 meant she’d have the gas money needed to join her family at Grandma’s house the next day. But beyond that, it’s a way to show them they are remembered and appreciated.
Of course, the Holiday Blitz can’t happen without volunteers. If you’d like to participate you can sign up as an individual, a family, or with friends. Most fast food outlets run shifts of 5-10 people, so the total cost is $100-$200 per restaurant. If you can’t cover the whole cost, Big Table can help meet the difference. Last year, 357 fast food employees received a Holiday Care Blitz envelope. Most of the cost was covered by those doing the deliveries, some came from donors who couldn’t participate, and Big Table covered the last 21%. The Holiday Blitz is in its third year and Big Table hopes this will be the largest one yet.
It only takes a few minutes to deliver a little holiday cheer, and you may find it’s the highlight of your day as well as theirs. Here’s what one volunteer had to say about the experience:
“We took our grandson with us. The young gal at the counter was very appreciative. Two others came out to thank us. The others were swamped with drive-in orders but yelled their thanks as we left. We then headed out to find more people…such happy smiles. I believe all were blessed, but I think maybe I had the happiest heart.”