John Taylor was working and living in Mobile, Ala., in 1995 when a large bomb exploded at the city's federal building. Compelled to help, but not sure how, Taylor ignored his feeling to get involved and continued on with his life. At the time, he was part of the culinary team for the Ruby Tuesday portfolio of restaurants.
But when the earthquake in Haiti happened in 2010, Taylor, now a chef at Panera Bread and living in Boulder, Colo., had the same feeling. This time, he didn't let it go.
"I really can't describe it other than a tap on the shoulder. It was just a personal call to do something," he said. "I just felt that somebody or something was encouraging me to put myself second and do something to help those affected by the tragedy."
He called longtime friend Shawn Davidson, a partner with Culinary Concepts Group. Davidson was living in Sarasota, Fla., and was already involved with former Pei Wei and P.F. Chang's chef Eric Justice on a fundraising program to help The Gladney Center for Adoption through Cookies4Kids.
Justice was in the process of his own personal mission to positively impact the lives of children, and had been traveling to orphanages in Africa through the Gladney Center. He had raised $20,000 for Gladney through the Cookies4Kids fundraising program.
After the initial fundraiser, Justice decided he wanted to give more than just financial support.
"Eric pulled me in very early on to help him with the Cookies4Kids promotion and I started working on the bigger picture – getting the name right so that we were not boxed in to cookies and changing the name to Chefs4Kids," Davidson said. "Together we were looking long term, when expanded to Haiti and the bigger mission of not being just a fund-raising group."
After several conversations and trips by Davidson to Haiti, the Chefs4Kids organization would teach impoverished women how to run a business so they could financially provide for their families. The vehicle to serve this mission: food carts.
Through a network of friends and manufacturers, Chefs4Kids found someone willing to build the food carts. And with the help of Whole Foods' Nikki Logan, also a Chefs4Kids board member, a business model for the carts was established that includes a profit and loss statement and operational structure. Meanwhile, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee gave Davidson access to three women's groups in Haiti in need of help. The groups were in Jacmel and Port Au Prince.
Story continues below...
"I knew I couldn't go down to Haiti on my own," Davidson said. "I reached out to the UUSC who had a program director named Wendy Flick. Wendy had been working in Haiti for 10 or 11 years and had a network of organizations and pilot programs. Specifically, she was working with three collaboratives of women who were trying to support their children by selling food from cinderblock grills and cardboard boxes laid out on dirt roads. They had heart and desire but they didn't have the muscle and experience that we had."
These groups of street vendors are known in Haiti as ti machann.
"On my first three trips to Haiti, I’d ask every ti machann I’d meet, 'How can we help you?' I will never forget the first answer I ever received when a young mother of three looked into my eyes and just said 'a bigger pot.'"
In June, the first two food carts were shipped to Haiti with Davidson, Taylor and fellow chef Tim Byres in tow.
"I felt anxious to get down there," Taylor said. "I was a little bit nervous about not knowing what to expect. You can say 'third world country' but what does that really mean? But I also was feeling confident that we would figure out what we needed to figure out. I really didn't have any expectations except helping or affecting one person's life. But getting down there and seeing Haiti some two years later … while I don't have a reference point … on one level it makes you wonder where the millions of dollars have gone, but that wasn't up to us to figure out. We had to bring this thing to life."
Once on the ground, the men helped build the first cart menu and taught the women about food safety. They also sourced products for the menu while another friend, Oscar Molina, reviewed the project for potential expansion into Nicaragua.
From that trip, the first cart is operational in Jacmel and the second, earmarked for Port Au Prince, is slated to begin operations in late August.
In the first few days of operation, Davidson said the women in Jacmel earned $76, which will be shared between six people.
Fifty percent of the carts' proceeds will go toward operational costs while another 5 percent is put toward community activism such as cleaning a park or planting flowers. Meanwhile, another 15 percent goes back into the program to support the purchase and development of additional carts.
"The idea is for this to be a sustainable model," Davidson said. "Out of that 50 percent they should be able to accrue money to maintain the business. We'll have to teach them how to do that, but that's where the mentor piece comes in."
The group is looking for volunteers who have business acumen and who can travel to Haiti to help teach business skills to the operating partners.
The organization also needs restaurants willing to sell cookies, beverages or other items at cost, with the proceeds going to Chef4Kids for additional funding. And because the chefs have such an extensive network, almost any item a restaurant wants to sell can be developed for in-store consumer purchase.
For example, the cookie developed by Justice was sold during a two-week period in Pei Wei restaurants. The cookies were packaged by a manufacturer and sold for $1 without any cost to the chain.
Additionally, teachers and other educators are needed who also can travel to Haiti – and to other areas where the program may soon exist – to teach the women how to handle their finances and to how to step out of the pattern of abuse.
"We anticipate girls making $20 to $30 per week who have never made any money in their lives," Davidson said. "It can create all kinds of potential problems that we don't know how to address. Our hope is that once we start raising money and have a track record, we can start attracting other people who have a wide range of experience and skills."
Until then, the organization will remain focused on building a solid foundation for its mission in Haiti.
"To me, there's a huge opportunity for us to get other chefs involved, but I didn't feel we could do that until we had a cart up and running and pictures and stories. Now it's about recruiting and helping companies figure out how they can make a difference," Taylor said.
Click here to view a slideshow of Chefs4Kids in Haiti.
Click here to link to the Chefs4Kids website and Flickr page.