Sometimes we get off track and it takes something or someone to bring us back to where we should be.
That happened on Monday as I scrolled through some friends’ Facebook posts. That’s when it jumped out at me, just as my tears poured. A single post from Jen, with a picture of two beautiful, young souls: a handsome man playfully carrying a petite woman on his back. Neither with a care in the world. Then the post. It read: “I’m blessed and lucky that you carried me all those years. Today would have been your 40th birthday. I miss you. I love you.” Someone I had never met. A stranger. Ryan Hidinger. Taken away. Cancer. Age 36.
Tears of sadness quickly turned to tears of pride as I kept scrolling through Jen’s page. Jen served as Host of Atlanta’s My 2nd Act: Survivor Stories from the Stage, so I had the incredible pleasure of working with her for a short afternoon in 2016. She was a vibrant spirit. Ryan was her husband. Their love story began when she was just 17, working as a cashier at a local shop. He was a bit older, but wooed her with his persistent visits to the vendor to purchase packets of Bubbalicious gum. Finally, given her family’s blessing, they had their first date. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ryan loved to cook and he had his dreams. Starting out small, the Hidinger’s hosted weekend supper clubs in their modest home in Atlanta. As the clubs grew, so did the dreams. Their dream? Staplehouse – a casual, eclectic restaurant they hoped the sprawling city would embrace. But just as their dream was shaping and the reality of owning a restaurant actually happened, Ryan was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. The world, as the Higinger’s knew it, would never be the same.
Challenged by the financial burdens and responsibilities, the Hidinger’s friends came together and in one fundraiser, their community raised $275,000. This generosity helped this beautiful couple manage the financial strain of cancer while they spent their last few months together. Even more beautiful was the fact they didn’t need all the money, so Team Hidi (Ryan’s nickname) had another plan. They called it The Giving Kitchen, an organization created that financially assists those in the restaurant industry who have fallen on hard times.
Then on January 9, 2014, Jen painfully said goodbye to Ryan.
Determined to continue the dream, Ryan’s sister Kara Smith, her husband Ryan (also a Chef), and Jen forged ahead as Team Hidi. As I continued to read, I was moved by their perseverance. The countless setbacks were almost shattering to the dream. From city permits to logistical nightmares even after they opened, Team Hidi never gave in. Finally, Staplehouse opened. The most beautiful part? The profits from the restaurant now fund Ryan and Jen’s original idea of The Giving Kitchen.
In 2016, Staplehouse received the James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in cuisine. The restaurant was also featured in a New York Times article about Atlanta’s resurgent food scene. Staplehouse has been featured in countless high-end food publications including Bon Appetite. Even Jen Hidinger herself has graced the cover of Entrepreneur Magazine. Their mission has come full circle. Most of all, Ryan is present in spirit every day, overseeing the dream he and his lovely wife planned from the supper clubs of yesteryear. Above all, Jen’s love for Ryan continues through The Giving Kitchen. TGK has grown into an incredible outreach for restaurant workers facing an unanticipated crisis. Since 2014, $1.1M in grants have helped over 600 restaurant workers just in the Atlanta area alone.
Many stops and starts along the path of the Team Hidi journey hit home for me. Like all of us, there are days I feel I have accomplished much and then there are the days I feel I am in a never-ending spiral. Maya Angelo posted on her own Facebook page, “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” For all those who are struggling today with their own journey, the inspirational story of this beautiful couple, with a dream defined by honor and tribute, is a lesson to us all. If we love with no boundaries and consistently give our hearts freely and openly, no matter the stumbles we face, we can follow the winding path of life to a destination called peace.
Congratulations and Happy Birthday, Team Hidi. Thank you for your gift to us all.