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Fried Chicken, Donuts, And A Big Idea For Attacking Poverty

The Rooster Soup Company is hoping a mountain of chicken bones will fuel a new model for serving Philadelphia’s hungry and homeless.

Fried Chicken, Donuts, And A Big Idea For Attacking Poverty
[Photos: Flickr users Mike DelGaudio, and Michelle G]

Under their buzzy Philly-based CookNSolo empire, business partners Steve Cook and James Beard Award–winning chef Mike Solomonov run some eight restaurants and counting–ranging from Zahav, a widely acclaimed, high-end modern Israeli spot, to Federal Donuts, a cult favorite donut-and-fried-chicken chain. But if their newest venture succeeds, Cook and Solomonov won’t see a penny: All of Rooster Soup Company’s net profits will go to Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, a groundbreaking initiative helping those in need.

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Steve Cook, Mike Solomonov, and Bill Golderer

The origins of Rooster Soup Company go back to 2011, with the runaway success of the original Federal Donuts location and its tightly focused menu of outrageously good donuts, crispy fried chicken, and coffee. “We opened this 600-square-foot shop in South Philly that could never produce enough to satisfy demand,” says Cook. Limited space also meant that the chicken had to be cut to spec offsite by their purveyor.

“Once we decided, hey, this Federal Donuts thing might have a future to it, we began thinking of one day when we would have a bigger production facility,” says Cook. With the opening of a fourth, much larger location in the Northern Liberties neighborhood earlier this year, for the first time they could butcher whole birds in-house. Enter what Cook calls the “problem-slash-opportunity” of the unneeded raw chicken backs and bones that don’t make it into the fryer–a jaw-dropping 1,000 pounds of perfectly good food landing in the trash every week.

This level of waste was especially troubling in Philadelphia, whose “deep poverty” level is highest among the 10 largest U.S. cities. “Since its inception, Federal Donuts has looked for ways to be greener and more socially conscious,” says Felicia D’Ambrosio, CookNSolo’s communications director and a Federal Donuts partner. For example, on quarterly staff volunteer days at Broad Street Ministry’s Hospitality Collaborative, CookNSolo team members help prepare meals for some of the most vulnerable Philadelphians.

Cook was impressed by the Ministry’s unexpected, cutting-edge practices and its focus on “radical hospitality”–welcoming anyone under virtually all circumstances. “I just was really moved by it, and felt like there was a real connection between what we do every day in our restaurants and their approach,” says Cook. Every detail of the setup is designed to minimize stress and trauma and to build relationships and trust. None of the guests ever wait in line. Rather, they are greeted warmly by a maître d’, who leads them to round tables with tablecloths. Friendly volunteers bring the beautifully plated food directly to them. A Motown-heavy music playlist fills the air.

Pickled Cuke Fish Tacos, a meal served to guests at Broad Street Ministry

The facility also functions as a home base for thousands of housing-insecure residents who pass through its doors. “We have over 2,000 Philadelphians receiving mail here,” says the Ministry’s pastor, Bill Golderer. “We’ve also invited best-in-class social service providers to operate in our space.” Research has shown that in an environment of support, hope, and safety, people are more likely to access and benefit from medical and other stabilizing services.

When Cook and his team approached their friend Golderer with a rough idea of donating soup made from the extra chicken parts, they soon came to understand that what the program needed most was a sustainable funding source. Luckily for Golderer, turning chicken into money is pretty much a no-brainer for the CookNSolo team. “We open restaurants. That’s what we do, and we enjoy doing it,” says Cook.

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The concept of Rooster Soup Company is straightforward: Use the chicken backs and bones to make delicious soup, sell the soup to customers, and donate all of the net profits to the Hospitality Collaborative.

Organizers launched a Kickstarter campaign for the restaurant’s startup capital. “We wanted to raise $150,000 from the community to show that Philadelphians were behind it,” says D’Ambrosio. (Patrons had pledged an additional $100,000.) They exceeded their goal by almost $30,000–raising $179,380 from 1,587 backers. But it was far from easy, cautions D’Ambrosio. “You have to use every resource, relationship, and social media channel you have to succeed.”

“My first thought after we were successful with the Kickstarter campaign was ‘All right, now we actually have to do this?’” says Cook. “It’s a little crazy.” But all of their hard work should pay off: He estimates that a thriving Rooster Soup Company (location to be determined) could eventually generate $100,000 in annual profit through the sale of such menu items as Chicken Noodle Pho and “Pastramen,” a Pastrami sandwich–ramen mash-up.

“We love to provide hospitality. We love to wow our guests and provide them with a really special experience and make them feel taken care of. And you know, at the end of the day that’s how we make our living,” says Cook. “But I like to think that we believe in it on a deeper level, and that’s the motivation.”

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