Dining with Dignity at McKinney's Community Garden Kitchen

Posted by Joe Munoz, Contributing Writer, on Apr 12, 2024

Dining with Dignity at McKinney's Community Garden Kitchen

“Welcome to Community Garden Kitchen. How many in your party?” the hostess with bright eyes and a big smile asked the young mother.

“Do you have room for 16?” came a tentative response.

“Absolutely! Give us a few minutes to set your table.” 

Servers snapped cloths across three tables followed by a flurry of forks and knives, water glasses and bread baskets. The well-rehearsed, big-party setup hardly drew a second glance from the kitchen staff. They had other things to think about.

“Put more steak on this toast, a little more cheese on that one, finish it off with wedge potatoes, and garnish it with a cherry tomato. No one leaves hungry.” the chef called out to her sous chefs.

Mouthwatering scents drifted from the kitchen and filled the restaurant. 

“I wish I had more room. I’d have another dinner,” one diner said, patting his belly after a chocolate cake dessert. 

“Come back and see us tomorrow night—we’ll save you a table,” the hostess tells him. She gives a wave and watches the customer stroll out without paying his tab. That’s to be expected at Community Garden Kitchen in Mckinney, one of Chase Oaks Church's local campus partners.

You’re Welcome To Dine and Dash

“Everyone eats for free, no questions asked,” said Angela Poen, President and CEO of Community Garden Kitchen.

Since 2022, Community Garden Kitchen has served more than 50,000 meals, most of them to folks in distress. 

Aside from providing free, healthy meals, Poen said the restaurant has a mission. “This is about dining with dignity. We want guests to have a true restaurant experience. Some places require you to fill out paperwork before you eat. We don’t do that. If you walked into Chili’s, you wouldn’t be asked to fill out paperwork. We want our guests to feel like they’ve gone out to dinner.”

The idea for the restaurant came to Angela during a breakfast Bible study. A pair of school principals were part of the group, and they were talking about kids coming to school with empty bellies.

“We thought it might be about 150 kids,” Angela recalls. “The principals told us 8000 kids in McKinney are food insecure.” They might get a meal at home…they might not.

As Angela dug into the problem, she was floored by the numbers.

“In Collin County, 48,000 kids are food insecure. Add their families and that’s the size of a town. Can you imagine a town where everybody is hungry?”

Feeding a Town for Free: God Provides

Angela and the Bible study crew decided to help change that. They launched an exhaustive search. Where could a restaurant be built, who would build it, where would the money come from, where would the food come from, who would run it?

The Episcopal Church of Dallas stepped in and provided the property. A capital campaign raised more than a million dollars. Builders were contracted, suppliers from grocery stores to bakeries were lined up to provide food for free. A professional chef from McKinney was ready to jump in and run the kitchen.

It was all moving forward beautifully. 

Then COVID hit. The project was paralyzed. What should have taken six months took 19 months to complete. While the usual construction headaches and the pandemic threw progress into slow motion, Angela still had plenty of other things keeping her busy.

“We didn’t know what our food costs we’re going to be; we didn’t know if we could get volunteers. We didn’t know if the used equipment we had was going to hold up,” she recalls. But constant prayers and plenty of legwork made things happen. All those prayers were heard, all those questions answered.  “We have a volunteer waiting list now,” Angela said with more than a hint of amazement.

Now, when it's planting season, the volunteers grow vegetables and herbs in the garden out back. The bigger food items come from four different grocery stores. What they get tends to be a daily surprise since this is usually food that needs to move off store shelves. One day they may get ham steaks. Another day, it may be racks and racks of bread and desserts but no protein, which has to be bought. Donations have been taking care of that. Their monthly grocery bills can hit $14,000 on a regular basis. “The Lord has come through,” Angela said.

Fighter Jets and Fine Food

Jeffrey Williams, one of the Kitchen’s regulars, is also grateful for the Almighty’s intervention. Jeffrey is a tough-as-boot-leather Vietnam veteran who’s usually sitting at a table close to the front door. All the better to see everything that’s going on, who comes in, who goes out, and what’s happening in the kitchen.  He’s more than happy to give an opinion. 

“I traveled the world training our allies how to fly our F-14s. I’ve trained hundreds of pilots,” he said.  Raising an eyebrow and leaning in towards me he provides a little context.  “Have you seen the new Top Gun movie? That mission was bogus,” he said with snort. “But the way he was training them was good.”

Williams doesn’t hold back when he’s talking about Community Garden Kitchen either. 

“I’ve never had a bad meal here, they use a professional chef and it tastes like it,” he said. “It’s better than any restaurant in McKinney.” 

His only complaints? “Well, sometimes the portions are small and I wish they were open five days a week.”

He’s quick to point out he’s not here just for a meal.  

“You’ll see some of the same faces when you’re here and the volunteers make me feel at home when I come in.” Sometimes he’ll have company at his table.

His dining partner tonight is Jennifer Pendergraft. Times are financially tight now for the young mom and her family, and Community Garden Kitchen is a highlight in a week filled with lowlights.

“There hasn’t been a single time I haven’t felt welcome. No matter who you are, your age, what color you are, what your financial situation is, you’re always welcome,” she said.  “You feel it in your heart. It's like when you go to church and your church family welcomes you.”

This kind of reaction isn’t uncommon. Angela said she sees a change in the folks who come. Part of it is providing that balanced meal and seeing customers start looking physically healthier. But it goes deeper than that.  She sees hearts touched. People begin to feel a sense of normalcy during not-so-normal times. “I think a big part of it is their spirits have been healed knowing they can come here. We're the friendly neighborhood cafe, a family, and they’re welcome here!”

Filling bellies and feeding souls. Welcome to Community Garden Kitchen.

Interested in making a difference in your community? Join us in Doing Good together as we work with local Chase Oaks partners to show love to people, right where we live. Find available projects and more info, here.

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