In 2013, Micheal Sparks founded The Underground Kitchen, a Richmond, Virginia-based “exclusive inclusive” dinner party series that traveled to 40 U.S. cities. In 2018, his friend Kate Houck joined as partner and COO. But when the pandemic hit, Sparks and Houck put the for-profit business on pause and in April formed the nonprofit branch The Underground Kitchen Community First, which provides healthy soups and bread, school lunches and family meals to the community in need.
Since the pandemic began, hunger and food security have dramatically increased in the U.S. Currently, Sparks and Houck provide more than 3,000 meals a week. But with their new centralized kitchen, soon they will be able to do 5,000 to 10,000 meals per week. In 2021, they’ll expand their services to include an airstream that can serve educational and emergency purposes and distribute meals statewide — and continue with a downsized, COVID-safe version of The Underground Kitchen. In the latest story in our Voices in Food series, Houck and Sparks talked to Garin Pirnia about feeding the community with soup and love.
How did The Underground Kitchen and The Underground Kitchen Community First get started?
Sparks: My [partner] and I moved from New York [in 2009]. I was in fashion for many years — I was with Louis Vuitton. When we moved to Richmond, we didn’t know anybody here. We did like every good New Yorker does and started throwing dinner parties. That’s how The Underground Kitchen started. In the eight, nine, 10 years since it’s been developed, it’s always celebrated chefs of color and women who don’t get to play in the big restaurants.
When COVID hit, we had just finished a big corporate event in Boston, at a super-spreader [event], where we caught COVID. The whole world started falling apart. In two weeks we lost millions of dollars worth of contracts [one in Turks and Caicos] and had to put everything on hold, including a TV production deal.
Houck: We literally sat on our couches for two weeks. And we’d start in the morning calling each other while drinking coffee, and when the sun went over the yard, we’d switched to wine, and after a few glasses we’d switch to vodka, and then we’d call each other up crying.
Sparks: I said to Kate: “Give me 24 hours. Let me think overnight.” Kate was freaking out. We have our life savings in this. We have our blood, sweat and tears and our love — everything — is in this thing for us, emotionally. I called my mom, who was, is a single mother of five kids. I said, “Mom, this is the situation.” She said, “Micheal, listen. Your [partner] is a doctor. Kate and you have good roots. You’re not going to hurt as much as other people. You’re going to be OK. Figure out a way to help people.” I had this epiphany overnight. I don’t know whether it was a dream or sitting up thinking. What do we do when people are sick? I said, start making soups. So I called Kate the next morning.
Houck: He was all bright and cheery. “What do you want? What are you so happy about?” He said: “I know what we’re going to do. A lot of our chefs were being laid off or they were put on part-time stuff. We’re going to call our crew and we’re going to start making soups and bread, and we’re going to start delivering it into the community.” And we did. That first week we got 175 meals into the community, and by the end of September we had sent out over 60,000 meals into the community. We had put it out in the paper and said: “Anybody who has been laid off, or if you’re sick, or if you’re a frontline worker, or if you’re pissed off about this thing and you want soup, let us know. We’ll get it to you.”
We were delivering to the projects and to the most expensive neighborhoods in town. I’ve lived here over 20 years and I’d never engaged with the people here like I did then. Micheal and I talked and I said, “This has to be a part of what we do going forward. We can’t stop doing this now. When we can we’ll still do the for-profit, but we have to keep feeding this community.” In this time where everyone was going for comfort food, which isn’t always the healthiest thing, it was emotionally comforting. There were a lot of people who we worked with who went to food pantries. But because of the stress on those food pantries, especially early in the pandemic, and some people work two, three jobs, by the time you’re in between shifts you don’t have time to throw a meal together out of what you got in your food box. We found that from the soup and bread we delivered, it filled them up and they were good to go.
What was it like going from throwing fancy seven-course dinner parties to serving your community?
Sparks: The soups we deliver to our folks are of the quality of The Underground Kitchen. There’s nothing different than what we’d serve at one of our events. The quality of ingredients is the same organic, beautiful ingredients. We had to scale back a little bit because we found out a lot soups don’t fit everybody’s tastes. We got a little more basic with it. But we would not do this unless we could do it under the same pretenses we do The Underground Kitchen. Quite frankly, [our cost to make it] may be a little bit more for the quality that we do, but it’s not much more than what a food pantry might put out — and it’s not filled with chemicals.
Houck: We’ve been able to tailor what people get based on what their needs and likes are, and we got chefs for everyone. For example, we distribute to a couple nonprofits that support the Latino community in Richmond. Our executive chef Viviana Nunes is from Puerto Rico and Antigua. So, she’ll put together some of her mother’s recipes for them. When she sends out something that speaks to them, it’s another bubble of comfort for people.
As a country, what are we going to do about the hunger crisis?
Sparks: There was food insecurity before COVID, but it brought us to attention because it’s disproportionately affected the POC communities. We’re in for the duration now. There’s no way we can go back. We’ve been in talks with the Episcopal church and other organizations of what this looks like nationally in the long term and what can we do for other communities with the same program.
Houck: We really want to develop a way to help people think about healthy eating differently. We had feedback from people. One woman wrote and said: “I’ve never eaten so many vegetables in my life. My blood pressure is under control. My diabetes is under control. I’ve lost 25 pounds.” Micheal and I said we should be eating our soups. If we can get people thinking that way, then there’s an opportunity to get them thinking about cooking differently. Micheal and I grew up with parents and grandparents who cooked everything from scratch. We’re circling around the idea of how to combine community urban farming and cooking from scratch and an on-a-budget idea and being able to form that into something to teach communities to be healthier.
Sparks: When we did the deliveries in the beginning, we gave them to everybody in the community, no matter how much money they [made]. We were driving our beautifully packaged meals to mansions. And it was just an older couple who was afraid to go out to get groceries and didn’t know technology, so they didn’t get Instacart. They were lost and hungry. It’s not just a financial thing. It’s an emotional toll and a mental toll that’s taken our community. It’s going to go deep.
What can people do in their own communities to help?
Houck: You can make an impact and it doesn’t matter how much you have. The fact that people know that there’s someone out there who gives a shit, for lack of a better term, makes a difference. One night, my daughter made cards to put into the bags for sending out meals. They were little hand-drawn cards that said, “Be well. Stay safe. We’ll get through this together.” Since then we’ve had volunteers who have made cards, and a card goes out with every meal that we send.
Sparks: [We give out the cards] to give a sense of community, to give a sense of love, that somebody is thinking about you. And it’s all handwritten. All we’ve been through in the past 10 months and what we’re going to see in these next 10 years, this whole process has really saved us as humans. It’s made us better humans. It’s a struggle, but waking up different from a for-profit business for the nonprofit has made a huge change in both of our lives.
Sparks: Caring about people. Doing something that immediately impacts people. It’s almost like going from Louis Vuitton to Target and knowing that you’re feeding the masses and not just a few of the rich.