Nonprofit Big Table helps restaurant and hospitality workers in Nashville

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  • Big Table is a non-profit organization serving restaurant workers nationwide
  • The nonprofit’s Nashville branch recently celebrated a year of service
  • Hattie B employee Kenyetta Fowler said Big Table helped her support her family

Kenyetta Fowler said she was struggling until Big Table intervened.

Fowler works at Hattie B’s. She has three children, ages 1, 3 and 4. She was struggling with personal and financial problems.

“I faced challenges, a whole bunch of personal issues,” Fowler said. “It suddenly hit me where I was not able to concentrate at work.”

Then her manager referred her to Big Table, where she met the group’s Nashville manager, Jen Seger. Fowler said the nonprofit helped her pay rent and electric bills and find food programs and furniture.

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“Maybe it’s family issues, or maybe I need help with baby stuff,” Fowler said. “Having someone outside of work who you know is in your corner who will be there for you and help you out is pretty awesome.”

Fowler said Big Table helped her overcome obstacles in her life, and Seger said she enjoyed getting to know Fowler.

“It just gave me the confidence to deal with situations, issues that I didn’t trust,” Fowler said. “I feel like I’m definitely in a better place. I’m a lot happier, focused on my kids.”

Building relationships

Big Table Nashville has been serving restaurant and hospitality workers since it began operations on July 1, 2021, according to Seger.

Kevin Finch, president of Big Table, said the nonprofit helps workers facing immediate challenges in five areas: housing, mental health, medical and dental health, job readiness, and addiction recovery.

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Volunteers also meet regularly with workers to develop relationships and develop plans for success, according to Finch.

“These are relationships that last for years,” he said.

Hattie B’s director of human resources, Lola Conway, said she offered Big Table as a resource for employees and appreciated the group’s focus on relationship building.

“Big Table doesn’t grow. They say, ‘Let’s meet for coffee, here are some options for you.’ Then it’s always up to the employee,” Conway said. “We have to check on each other.”

Conway said the Big Table model worked well with what she called Hattie B’s “work family.”

Conway began recommending workers after reading an article about Big Table in a local newspaper. Since last July, Conway has referred six employees to the association. She even recommends the group to other Nashville businesses.

“It’s kind of word of mouth, it’s experience,” Seger said. “Someone gets help and then they talk about it.”

Bring people together

Big Table places guests at a literal table, according to Finch. Each city hosts 48 restaurant and hospitality workers at a large table for about three dinners a year, he said.

“When we do these dinner parties, it’s this amazing turnaround where people who would normally serve others can be served for one night,” Finch said.

Conway said she volunteered at several of those dinners.

“I’ll serve them food, and they’ll look up and say, ‘Lola! What are you doing here? ‘” Conway said. “They are a wonderful group of people with big hearts.”

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Those who attend the dinners often refer others to the nonprofit, according to Finch.

“That reference from the person who knows her is our ticket to say, ‘Tell me about what’s going on. Tell me how we can help you,’” he said. “Those most in need and really hurting are the ones at the top of the list.”

Finch said Big Table helps about 1,500 people across the country each year, not including the friends and family who indirectly benefit from each care recipient.

“What’s changing people’s lives isn’t just crisis care,” Finch said. “He’s someone who walks alongside them.”

Big Table also recently partnered with a group tentatively calling itself “The Vacancy” to address homelessness, Seger said.

“We kind of felt like we were this hodgepodge,” she said. “We would say, as people of faith, it was like God was bringing people together.”

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Finch is a former pastor who moonlighted as a food critic, he said. After five years working in restaurants and hospitality, Finch noticed that the needs of service workers often went unnoticed due to the nature of their work.

“The most important part of the uniform for anyone in this industry is their smile,” he said. “It looks like there are more people who are on the edge than I’ve seen anywhere else in the community.”

Provide support to industry

substance abuse has historically been the highest among restaurant and hospitality workers, according to the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This often combines with stress, lower income and broken relationships, according to Big Table.

“We know the restaurant industry has a very high burnout rate,” Conway said.

Finch said he looked in 2006 for a nonprofit to support these workers, but couldn’t find one.

“I’m literally just this pastor who stumbled across it,” he said. “I just couldn’t not do something. That’s where the idea of ​​creating a community around the table was born.”

Finch said he established Big Table in Spokane, Washington in 2009 during the Great Recession.

“It was an incredibly dumb moment to begin with, but I’m grateful,” he said.

The non-profit organization then began operating in other states. Seger, a longtime Nashville resident, said Finch first approached her through the church, hoping to establish a Big Table branch in the area.

“You’re also looking for a place that would recognize the impact of restaurants and hotels on the economy,” she said. “The other thing is that Nashville is a generous city.”

Big Table has also branched out into other cities, according to Finch, and plans to continue expanding its operations.

“We’re really, really excited for Big Table to help with care coordination, mentoring,” Conway said. “We have to take care of our employees first. We have to make sure that we love and support them.”

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