The Guest House: Serving Up Dinners and Dignity
“Access to food is a basic human need and a fundamental right.” —American Dietetic Association, 2010
Despite this social statement, for many homeless people, the fundamental right to food is frequently denied and the food they do have access to is far from nutritious or satisfying. But a man with a big idea and an even bigger network changed the food game for one homeless facility.
The Guest House provides temporary housing for 86 men and thanks to Dale Rhyan, Guest House residents enjoy regular meals prepared by some of Milwaukee’s best chefs.
Rhyan, the former owner of the La Boulangerie café, bakery and catering service, conceived the idea and worked his magic to bring it to fruition. After more than 25 years on the Milwaukee restaurant scene, Rhyan was searching for a way to put his restaurant knowledge, experience and — most importantly — connections to work for a cause that he cared deeply about homelessness.
In 2010, a friend introduced him to the Guest House, where Rhyan felt an immediate connection. “I felt like I was supposed to be part of it. It’s one of the most amazing facilities in the country and we’re very lucky to have it in Milwaukee.” As impressed as Rhyan was the programs and mission of the Guest House, he was disappointed to learn about its less-than-stellar food program.
“The guys were only getting 13 meals a month and they were junk,” Rhyan recalls. He decided to ask his friendly neighborhood restaurant owners for a big favor. “I called the program 86 because the beds in the Guest House are always full and
there’s a waiting list. Folks thought I was nuts to take this on but I know those guys, I know all the (chefs) up and down the block; I sold them bread products for years.” One of those chefs is Sanford chef and owner Justin Aprahamian.
“Dale Rhyan is the reason we started cooking for the Guest House...we cook the second Tuesday of every month. They’re taking on a great mission over there and anything we can do to support that and help pay it forward is a good thing,” Aprahamian says.
When Rhyan initially approached restaurant owners with the idea of providing dinners for Guest House residents, he was surprised at their positive response. “I started knocking on doors in December 2010, in the worst economy. I was thinking they’d say ‘this is a great idea, but I don’t know if it’s gonna fly.’ I would be crying on my way home because I wasn’t getting any rejections. It was so beautiful, I filled the calendar for 2011 for dinner every night and most of 2012,” Rhyan recalls.
The Guest House restaurant program has been going strong ever since with residents enjoying two or three restaurant meals every week. Participating restaurants include Sanford, Wolf Peach, Beans and Barley, Marcus Hotels and Restaurants, Blue’s Egg, Maxie’s, the Stilt House, Café Hollander, Café Benelux, the Milwaukee Brat House and Café 1505. The opening dinner, provided by Joe Bartolotta, exceeded all expectations. “Joe did the dinner on Valentine’s Day in 2011. I told him I was looking for something nutritious, and I said, ‘you can give us lasagna.’ Joe brought enough prime rib for 150 people. I said, ‘Joe, you can’t do that...we want these guys to get their lives back and if you give them prime rib, they won’t want to leave,’” Rhyan recalls, smiling.
Once a month, on the Saturday before Sanford’s scheduled Guest House meal, Aprahamian and his team discuss the menu. “At 12:30 after a long Saturday night, this is what we talk about and we take it seriously,” Aprahamian says. Like virtually everything Sanford serves, seasonal foods inspire the menu choices for the Guest House. “One of our favorite family meals (meals made for Sanford staff) is roasted tomatoes with bacon and sausage with some crusty bread and a salad. Shared Seasons farm delivers on Tuesday mornings; when they have tomato seconds that can’t be used for salads, we use them for our family meal and for the Guest House dinner. We’re helping the farmers because we take an extra 20 pounds of tomato seconds,” Aprahamian adds.
As many of the residents deal with addiction or mental health issues, something as basic as a good meal is essential to their recovery. Amy Rowell, Manager of Community Engagement says.“With restaurants providing nutritious and hearty meals, it’s one less thing for the residents to worry about. They can focus on meeting the goals of their individual program. It’s really powerful. When you’re not hungry and you have your basic needs met, you can focus on dedicating yourself to your recovery,” Rowell adds.
In addition to local restaurants, friends and family groups and faith-based groups also cook meals for Guest House residents. In fact, the restaurant programs often provide an impetus for other groups to participate in the Guest House meal program. “A faith-based group can come in and serve a restaurant meal. It’s been a huge opportunity because after they’ve participated in restaurant dinner, they frequently say, ‘We can do this on our own.’ The restaurant nights allow us to reach out to more faith-based groups,” Rowell says.
The brilliant simplicity of Rhyan’s idea combined with the dedication of the Guest House staff and the generosity of the restaurant owners contributes to the ongoing success of the program. “God Bless Justin and a few others who make this a priority, I couldn’t be more grateful to those that are with us now six years later,” Rhyan says. But Rhyan keeps a low profile and shuns too many accolades. “It’s really not about me. Don’t give me too much credit,” he insists.
How do the residents feel about their regular restaurant meals? “One of the residents, a gentleman named Duane said, ‘it helps me feel normal,’” Rowell recalls.