A Denver food truck is sending salvation in the form of street tacos.
Kitchen One for One was launched two and a half years ago by Chris Kilcullen and Mark Sunderhuse as a way to feed the homeless community in Denver and beyond. The mobile kitchen, which the organization says was the first nonprofit food truck in the country, turned out to be an efficient way to get good food out to as many people in need of a warm meal as possible — and as a result, the number of meals served quickly grew.
But the rapid spread of coronavirus and the resulting government response to regulating food service caused Kitchen One for One to change its model. Meanwhile, the crisis has also increased the number of people experiencing food insecurity — so Kilcullen and Sunderhuse are busier than ever.
"We served 15,000 people the first year," Sunderhuse recalls. "But now we're up to more than 2,300 meals a week."
Cooking and serving food straight from the One for One truck was a great way to connect with those receiving meals, but it also limited the amount of meals that could be created. Now that new regulations have shifted the way food must be prepared, the organization is cooking all of its food at the Rocky Mountain Commissary in Arvada, then bagging the meals — usually street tacos — and handing them out at several facilities around town, as well as in Idaho Springs and Evergreen. "We really enjoy having conversations with people we're serving and setting up to play music," Sundurhuse notes. "We can't do that now, so things are a little less personal, but we're reaching more people."
Sunderhuse wasn't a chef or restaurateur when he and Kilcullen came up with the idea of starting a mobile kitchen. "I just thought it would be really cool to have a food truck, and I wanted it to be one that would help people," he explains. "Here's my previous restaurant experience: My name is in the basement at Casa Bonita, because you get your name on a plaque if you work there for a year. But Chris and his wife are veterans in the hospitality industry."
He might have lacked experience, but Sunderhuse recognized a workable model: One of Kitchen One for One's strengths is its ability to turn monetary donations into meals. "We try to be super-efficient with food and labor, so we get about 95 cents of every dollar into bellies," Sunderhuse says.
That efficiency is needed right now, as more and more service-industry employees are laid off from restaurants that can't retain staff because dining rooms are closed to customers through at least late April. "But even before everything closed, things were already slowing down for the restaurant industry," Sunderhuse observes, adding that friends in the business began noticing customers starting to stay home even in January and February.
And so One for One picked up the pace and now has 100 to 150 regular volunteers, with a roster of about 300 who help out intermittently. The organization distributes meals at Sox Place, a day shelter for homeless youth at 20th and Lawrence streets; the St. Francis Center on Curtis Street; Clear Creek Rock House in Idaho Springs; and St. Francis and Evergreen Christian Outreach. "Many people we serve are just people who may have jobs but just can't make ends meet," Sunderhuse says. And those who do have jobs may not have them for long, he adds.
Kilcullen and Sunderhuse know they have plenty of hard work ahead, since Colorado's hospitality industry won't get back to normal for many weeks or even months. Sunderhuse says that he expects the homeless population to continue to grow for a time, too, even after restaurants begin to recover.
“With the current COVID-19 crisis, seniors and those with underlying health conditions are often unable to obtain food, so our partners and volunteers are delivering food to their homes,” adds Kilcullen.
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He hopes that Kitchen One for One won't be the only outfit helping out. "There will be an opportunity for restaurants, too — even though they're all hurting now — for the ones in a position now to come back strong," he says.
Right now, the biggest concerns of the Kitchen One to One founders is keeping staff, volunteers and members of the homeless community safe while continuing to gather donations to buy food for meals. Unfortunately, Sunderhuse points out, an economic downturn always has a negative impact on donations — at a time when they're needed most.
Kitchen One for One volunteers package meals from 4 to 6 p.m. for delivery to their partners; visit Kitchen One for One's website for volunteer opportunities and other ways to help (you can even purchase a Kitchen One for One hoodie online).
A taco could save a life.