Turning the Table

Executive Chef Bob Rogers with Kevin Finch (right). PHOTOS BY BIG TABLE

Many people in the hospitality industry live on the edge financially and emotionally, so Kevin Finch ’89 started a nonprofit to serve the servers

Kevin Finch ’89 never imagined what God would do with his hunger. Finch, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Big Table, recalls his insatiable appetite as a boy.

“If my family was invited to someone’s house for dinner, my mother fed me two sandwiches beforehand so I wouldn’t embarrass the family,” Finch said.

He would often ask their hosts to give his mother the recipe, which usually resulted in a second or third helping from the cook.

“This went on through high school until I went to the home of a new couple in town, and the mother served the most amazing beef teriyaki. When I asked for the recipe as usual, she said no. Seeing my shocked face, she said that instead of giving me the recipe, she would teach me to make it.”

Finch began going to her house regularly to cook, and when he graduated from high school, she gave him a box of all the recipes they had made together.

“My love for food goes deep into my history,” Finch said. “At the time, I didn’t know it would turn into a calling.”

As a student at Seattle Pacific University, he began collecting restaurant reviews from The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma. If the article highlighted a dish that wasn’t too expensive, he would rush out to see if he agreed with the reviewer.

“Eventually my English degree collided with my love of food,” Finch said. “By the time I finished my master of divinity at Princeton and took a pastoral position in Spokane, Washington, my reputation had preceded me. Everyone was asking me where they should eat.”

It was a dream come true when Finch’s friend — also the editor of a regional lifestyle magazine — asked if he would write restaurant reviews. Over the next two years he also began writing the fine dining pieces for The Spokesman-Review in addition to his pastoral work.

As he frequented restaurants, he started to notice the overwhelming needs of the people who worked in the industry, so Finch began looking for data about what he was witnessing.

“The statistics revealed a picture so much worse than I’d imagined,” he said. “The restaurant industry is the largest aggregate employer in the country and has the highest rates of drug and alcohol use of any industry. Almost 50% of workers live below the poverty line. The rest are only one bill away from going under.”

His first thought was to donate a portion of his article stipends to nonprofits helping people in the hospitality industry, but he couldn’t find any.

“Workers in the hospitality industry greet people with a smile since their job depends on it — but no one could see their need. Behind those smiles was an unbelievable amount of pain and brokenness,” Finch said.

There was no safety net for hospitality workers. Their friends typically worked in the industry, also living on the financial and emotional edge. And the odd hours — nights, weekends, holidays — took a toll on family relationships.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” Finch said. “I was just a pastor who loved going out to eat and writing about food.”

Big Table cares for hospitality workers through seven-course dinners where the servers get served.

In the fall of 2006, Finch had what he describes as a divine encounter. He woke from a deep sleep at 2 a.m. He got out of bed and walked around the room in the dark, trying to determine what had woken him. Suddenly, he heard a voice say, “Kevin, I need a pastor for the restaurant industry. Are you interested?”

That night, in the pitch-black room, Finch found himself awake and dialoguing with God. In his mind’s eye he saw an image of a Bible opened to the second chapter of Acts, where it describes the early church.

“I read the passage before me, and two phrases jumped out. The first was that the early Christians ate together. The second was that if anyone had a need, they took care of each other. And then the voice said, ‘That’s how you pastor this group of people.’”

It took three weeks to tell anyone what happened, but Finch eventually started sharing his vision with others, including his uncle, Eugene Peterson ’54 — scholar, theologian, poet, and author of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.

“Uncle Gene always emphasized staying in one place and investing in one community,” Finch said. “I was nervous to share my Big Table vision with him, a vision that spans across the nation. But Uncle Gene and Aunt Jan became our first significant giving partners.”

Finch gathered his courage to leave a stable church job with insurance, a pension, and good benefits, and began planning a nonprofit — Big Table — to serve workers in the hospitality industry, which he saw as alienated from the Christian community.

“I thought God was offering me a job guaranteed to fail, because my experience was that people loved to talk to food critics, but no one wanted to talk to a pastor. It ended any conversation almost instantly.”

A few years before, Finch asked a waitress friend why waitstaff wouldn’t talk to pastors.

“As a server, I hate Christians,” she said. “They’re the worst customers, the most demanding, and the worst tippers. They often take up tables for hours so they can study the Bible.”

Finch envisioned a movement where people might see Christians in a different light, one where people of faith offered to meet practical needs with no strings attached.

The first thing people see on Big Table’s website is the statement, “Caring for restaurant and hospitality workers before they fall off the ledge” in bold, capital letters. It’s a ledge many have stepped closer to during the pandemic.

“Restaurant workers live from paycheck to paycheck. If you don’t work an hour, you don’t get paid. If you get COVID, you can’t go to work. That’s your rent. And you get an eviction notice. Or you can’t buy food for your child. There is no safety net for these folks. Once a person falls off the ledge, they’re very broken at the bottom,” Finch said.

Big Table serves people who are currently working. They haven’t lost their homes yet and may be functional alcoholics or using substances. “If we can catch them before they fully fall, we can prevent so much suffering, and it costs so much less than catching someone once they’re on the streets and can no longer hold down a job,” he said.

The public cost to serve a person without a permanent home is often more $100,000 annually, Finch said, but Big Table can stabilize a whole family for under $1,500, keeping their kids in school and their lives intact.

“Workers struggle not because the industry wants to grind people up. On the contrary — it’s the one place almost anyone can get a job, regardless of educational status, criminal history, or English language proficiency. That concentrates a large group of vulnerable people under one roof,” Finch said.

One way Big Table cares for hospitality workers is through a series of seven-course dinners held several times a year where the servers themselves get served.

“There’s an actual big table that seats 48 in each of our cities,” Finch said. (Big Table currently works in San Diego, California; Spokane, Washington; and Nashville, Tennessee.) “We bring in an amazing chef, and the dinner guests are line cooks, waiters and waitresses, dishwashers, and managers. The people who would normally be restaurant customers — the larger community — serve them for an evening.”

To Finch, it’s the kind of kingdom reversal Jesus spoke of in Matthew 20, where the last are now first, and the first are last. Some of the recipients of Big Table dinners have served or cooked thousands of meals but never once been a guest.

“It’s the marriage supper of the Lamb from the Book of Revelation,” Finch said. “This is what the kingdom of heaven looks like. There are seats for people who could never reserve those seats in their lives.”

Dinners are held in beautiful, donated locations three to four times a year on a Monday night, when industry workers can more easily get off work. Food and labor are usually donated by former guests or volunteers. “We’ve sometimes been able to put on a $20,000 dinner for nothing,” Finch said. “We invite potential giving partners to serve, to hear the stories, and simply get in touch with what it’s like to be on your feet all night.”

Finch recalls the first Big Table dinner in 2009. The day of the dinner, he wondered how he could identify workers with the greatest need. He saw a stack of 3×5 cards on his desk, threw them in his pocket, and drove to the dinner. As the dinner ended, he gave each guest a notecard and asked them to write the name of a person most in need of care and assistance. The referral system was born.

“It was God’s inspiration,” Finch said. “It changes the power dynamic immediately. The person in need isn’t asking for help — we’re reaching out to them.

“In a hotline model, people call to get help. But there’s a lot of vetting to ensure the need is legitimate and the help will be used in the way it was intended. In the referral model, we ask people on the ground — bosses, co-workers, or customers — to recommend someone who needs assistance. The
referrers are the ones who actually see the need.”

At the first dinner, Finch was surprised to see Jerry, a fast-food restaurant manager, with a blank referral card. Finch later called to ask why Jerry hadn’t referred someone. “I could have written down every single employee’s name,” Jerry told him.

With some prompting, Jerry identified a woman who had recently gone through a painful divorce. Her ex-husband’s last act was to smash her sewing machine against the wall, knowing that sewing was what she loved most.

“Could Big Table buy her a sewing machine?” Jerry asked. Finch and others wrapped a sewing machine and brought it to the restaurant. Jerry invited the employee out and when she opened it, she began to weep. “Now I can hem people’s pants again,” she said.

“Her response was typical of people in this industry,” Finch said. “Her first thought was for someone else.”

Big Table’s first mission statement spoke of transforming lives. Then a consultant asked Big Table’s board what that meant and whether it was even possible.

“We came to realize that only God can transform lives, but we can be attentive to what God is already doing,” Finch said.

Still, Finch considered what transformation might look like and how to describe that without using unfamiliar and alienating religious language. “I was reminded of John 10:10, how Christ came to give life in abundance. I wondered, Could we make Big Table about moving people toward a life of abundance? What are the points of crisis in people’s lives?

“We identified eight different areas where we see brokenness, everything from mental health to addiction to vocational life. In each of those areas, we asked ourselves, What would transformation look like? We call these ‘trajectories of transformation,’ and we actually track those areas in a database. As part of our ongoing care, we set reminders to meet with the care recipients and check in.”

Big Table began engaging professional volunteers — experts in financial literacy, health, and addiction recovery — to consult with care recipients and coach them.

Finch recalls a woman who went to a restaurant manager to praise her waiter, Edgar, for his good service. The manager said Edgar was their best employee but was struggling with untreated multiple sclerosis. He hadn’t seen a doctor in 10 years, and his symptoms were beginning to affect his work. The woman called Big Table. Within 24 hours of meeting Edgar, Big Table set up a doctor’s appointment, and Edgar went home with medication to slow the manifestation of MS.

“We bring more than money,” Finch said. “It’s relationships and a network of doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, and others in the community who can help.”

Laura Lympus, a former SPU staff member, is now Big Table’s executive of expansion, overseeing initiatives to move Big Table beyond its current projects in Spokane, San Diego, and Nashville.

She calls Finch a true visionary. “He’s the ultimate optimist, always seeing good in every person and every idea,” she said. “He has a pastor’s heart that cares for people equally, whether they are care recipients, volunteers, staff, or board members.”

Finch and Lympus’ husband were former pastoral colleagues in the Presbyterian Church USA. “I remember when Kevin told my husband about his vision for a nonprofit that would serve people in the hospitality industry. Later I told my husband, ‘This is either going to be amazing, or it’s going to bomb.’ I had worked in the restaurant industry myself, and I knew how resistant that culture is to the Christian community.”

Finch invited Lympus and her husband to a breakfast fundraiser. When Finch got up and announced Big Table was raising funds to hire their first care coordinator to work with restaurant workers, her heart was pounding.

“As he described the job, I wanted to jump and yell, ‘That’s me!’ I went up to Kevin immediately afterward.”

Lympus became the third employee of Big Table. “As a care coordinator, I loved sitting with people and giving them the opportunity to be heard,” she said. “We call it the power of presence. So many people are lonely and isolated.”

She’s grateful for Finch’s leadership and acknowledges the risks he took to answer this unusual call. “He’s a humble leader who recognizes how critical it is to have a team, but he’s also incredibly fun to eat with. He delights in everything about food.”

For Big Table, the pandemic brought both opportunities and challenges. During shutdowns and layoffs, the broader public was awakened to the plight of hotels, restaurant owners, and hospitality workers. “In 2020, the pandemic shattered the industry,” Finch said. “I got a call from a chef who said he let go of 270 people in one night.”

But 2021 was even more difficult, as government support and public attention dwindled. Staff worked too many hours, often reporting to work sick for fear of financially going under with their minimum-wage earnings. The hospitality industry saw the highest number of workers burning out and quitting as part of “The Great Resignation.”

The pandemic also led to the closure of Big Table operations in Seattle.

“We had a lot of connections in Seattle, including Seattle Pacific University,” Finch said. “But the cost of living in Seattle, among other factors, made it financially unviable. The closure of the Seattle office broke the hearts of our clients and partners, and the needs are worse than ever.”

Finch said Big Table is now considering a hybrid model for Seattle to allow people to continue to care without the cost of a team on the ground. He’s hopeful that affiliate cities, through donors and volunteers, could help the organization grow in a new, sustainable way across the country.

“Seattle could teach us how to expand, if we listen,” Finch said. He hopes to establish an “A-Team” of donors in potential cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Phoenix, Arizona. Always on the lookout for fun, Finch envisions the A-Team — based on themes from the old television show — providing early support that will lead to establishing new regional offices.

Big Table serves around 2,000 individuals and their families per year across three cities. Finch’s dream is to expand to 10 cities by 2030.

“What would happen if the community suddenly saw this population of restaurant workers and cared for them? It would create a domino effect,” Finch said. “You’ll start with your waitress. Then you’ll pay attention to your grocery clerk. And then the gas station attendant. And whoever is serving you.

“I’ve always hoped to create a movement, not an organization, where the larger community sees the need in their midst and responds. That’s how the Holy Spirit works across history. Not because someone was paid to do it, but as a calling. That’s what revival looks like.”


How can I help?

Start right where you are

Pick a few of your favorite restaurants and focus more of your dining-out dollars there. Avoid peak times so your server might have time to talk. Begin to build relationships with the staff. Remember names and key details by making notes on your phone to review next time. Write short encouraging messages on the bill. Show up with a plate of homemade cookies for the kitchen crew.

Host a benefit event

Partner with Big Table to raise money to support the country’s largest industry with the highest concentration of need.

For more information and practical care ideas, visit www.big-table.com.

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