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Ryan Hidinger Talks Cancer, Staplehouse, and Community

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Ryan Smith (front) at Staplehouse's Love is Love Dinner.
Ryan Smith (front) at Staplehouse's Love is Love Dinner.

In January, chef Ryan Hidinger of Staplehouse shared the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer. For the past four years, Ryan and his wife, Jen, have opened their Grant Park home to dozens of hungry diners under the auspices of opening their own restaurant one day. They called the supper club Prelude to Staplehouse.

Just prior to Ryan's cancer diagnosis, the Hidingers had made plans to lease a space to finally realize their dream of opening Staplehouse. Those plans were immediately put on hold so Ryan could focus his efforts on treatment, but now, the couple has announced the launch of their internet campaign to make Staplehouse a reality. Here's Ryan on crowdsourcing to open their restaurant, their plans on giving back to the community, and how Staplehouse will be a truly family affair.

Your cancer diagnosis put plans for Staplehouse on hold. When did you decide you were going to go forward with opening the restaurant?

About two months ago, I woke up one morning to an email from Ryan Turner (owner/partner in Muss & Turner's, Local Three, and future partner in Staplehouse), and it basically said, "I've been up all night. I can't sleep. I can't stop thinking about the fact that you have been working on this for this long, and that you're not going to be progressing with it. I really want to check in with you and see what you think about this, but I really think you should go forward with your plans."

I read it, and I just started crying. Thinking about the restaurant was not on my mind. I was thinking about cancer, about treatment, and Ryan's email was just a breath of fresh air to give me the motivation to think about Staplehouse again.

It didn't take us that long. We thought about it that day and called him back and set up a meeting, and things just started rolling.

I can't tell you how big of a medicine moving forward with Staplehouse is for me. It's a huge motivator, and a great source of energy for me to draw from. We're thrilled to be pushing forward with a new vision for the restaurant.

That new vision being The Giving Kitchen initiative. How did that idea come to fruition?

We knew we wanted the community to be part of Staplehouse all along, but after the Team Hidi event [held at the King Plow Center in January, the event raised over $200,000 for Ryan's treatment and medical bills], I knew immediately that I wanted to do something more.

After we got the motivation from Ryan [Turner] to move forward with the restaurant, we knew that was the route we were going to go. And that's basically a restaurant that acts as a non-profit.

[Note: The Giving Kitchen, which will be funded by Staplehouse's profits, will "support the metro Atlanta restaurant community by lending a helping hand to industry members impacted by medical or other unanticipated hardship."]

Did you always know that Ryan Smith [executive chef at Empire State South and Ryan Hidinger's future brother-in-law] would be a part of Staplehouse?

No. It was a very spontaneous, wonderful thing that happened. Right before I was diagnosed, Ryan and I went to New York City. It was actually a gift from Jen for our anniversary. I had never been, and that's the place everyone dreams of going, especially to eat.

Ryan found out I was going, and said, "I want to go, too." He bought a ticket, and over the course of that day, eating many, many meals, and drinking many, many cocktails, we just casually talked about food, cooking, and the possibility of cooking together. It wasn't really about partnering together. We got back into town, and I got sick. Sickness turned into more tests, which turned out to be cancer, and I think something happened to him as a result of that, too. He saw the need and the importance of what we were doing with Staplehouse.

I ended up meeting with him for coffee at Octane one morning the same day Ryan Turner sent me the email about moving forward with the restaurant plans. I really just wanted to get someone else's opinion on the matter. And just out of the blue, in the middle of this conversation, Ryan Smith said, "I've been thinking about this a lot since New York, and I want to be a part of it."

We were obviously thrilled and caught completely off-guard and are just super excited about what that means for the team [Staplehouse will have seven partners: Ryan and Jen Hidinger; Ryan's sister, Kara Hidinger, currently a manager at Abattoir; Ryan Smith; and the Muss & Turner/Local Three partners: Chris Hall, Ryan Turner, and Todd Mussman].

Last week, you launched an online campaign to fund Staplehouse and the Giving Kitchen. What made you decide to use that method of funding?

As far as fundraising goes, we realized the scale of the project was probably too big to try to approach a group of investors or a bank. The reality and the spirit of it, and the way we plan to use the money [to fund the Giving Kitchen], were counterproductive to what traditional investors would be looking for and counterproductive to what we wanted to do. The crowdsourcing plan was always something we wanted to do for Staplehouse before [the cancer diagnosis], but, obviously, on a much smaller scale.

The spirit of Staplehouse and the fact that it's essentially operating as a non-profit made it clear crowdsourcing was the way to go. We're just blessed. We're lucky to have the people around us and in our lives—everyone from Choate [construction company] to Square Feet Studio [Staplehouse architects and interior designers]— have been willing to work with us for as close to zero as possible or completely free. It's pretty amazing, and a lot of them have been working with us for four years, since before my diagnosis, so it's awesome they are willing to contribute like that.

After cancer, everything gets a different lens on it. Profits don't matter. What matters to us is that we're going to be able to do what we love in one of the best restaurants in the city— hopefully, the country— and help people while we do it.
Laura Scholz
· Staplehouse: A Purpose-driven Restaurant [Indiegogo]
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