10 Years later: Ryan Hidinger’s legacy

A look back at the story that thrust Atlanta into the culinary spotlight

Ryan Hidinger's legacy
Jen and Ryan Hidinger

Photograph by Andrew Thomas Lee

It’s been 10 years. Ten years since Jen Hidinger lost her beloved husband, Kara Hidinger lost her only brother, and chefs Chris Hall, Todd Mussman, Ryan Turner, and Ryan Smith lost a dear friend and fellow chef. It’s been just over 10 years since the Atlanta community rallied around Ryan Hidinger—known for his work at Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe, and Muss & Turner’s—after he was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer, raising $275,000 for his medical expenses at what has since become an annual charity gala called Team Hidi. “Hidi” was Ryan’s nickname.

Much has changed in the decade that’s passed. Giving Kitchen, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit the Hidinger family established when Hidi got sick and which provides emergency assistance to food service workers in crisis, has grown to 33 employees. It has granted more than $11 million to those in need.

In 2015, Hall, Mussman, and Turner received the Cornerstone Humanitarian Award from the National Restaurant Association for their work with the organization. In 2019, Jen accepted the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award on behalf of Team Hidi.

Jen and Ryan Hidinger also founded Staplehouse, a brick-and-mortar version of the ticketed supper-club dinners, “Prelude to Staplehouse,” that they used to host at their home. This was Hidi’s dream. He and Ryan Smith (his brother-in-law) had planned to cook there together, and Smith was a cochef when it was founded. Instead, when the restaurant finally opened in late 2015, a year after Hidi’s death and supported in part by a crowdfunding campaign, husband-and-wife team Smith and Kara Hidinger were at the helm.

Staplehouse offered a five-course, prix fixe tasting menu inside, with a la carte options on the patio. “Once Hidi knew he wouldn’t be around to see Staplehouse open, he passed the cooking torch of the business to me,” Smith says. “It was a privilege.”

After a slow opening period—Staplehouse required prepayment via Tock, something unique for Atlanta at the time—the homey Edgewood Avenue restaurant was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. It was a 2016 James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, and Smith was nominated for Best Chef: Southeast. Perhaps more impactful in terms of business, Bon Appétit magazine named Staplehouse the best new restaurant in America that year, and Atlanta magazine’s Corby Kummer awarded it four stars—the first four-star review in six years. He told readers the restaurant was worth the trip, even if it meant getting on an airplane.

Suddenly, Staplehouse was completely booked, sold out at every seating. Yet Smith and Kara, who bought Staplehouse in 2020 after running it for five years, had already planned to pivot to a fully a la carte experience to make the restaurant more accessible. “The response to those articles exceeded our expectations, and the pivot coinciding with those accolades really hurt,” Kara says. “We were overextended.” At that time, Staplehouse was billed as the for-profit subsidiary of the Giving Kitchen, donating all after-tax proceeds. Jen was bouncing back and forth between the two connected organizations.

By the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Staplehouse had gone through several iterations of menu and service format, and the Giving Kitchen was helping a few hundred food service workers a year. Jen turned her attention to the nonprofit, giving it her complete focus as its face and key advocate. Kara and Smith—already in the process of purchasing Staplehouse—turned the nonprofit into a soup kitchen, feeding unemployed hospitality workers.

“I knew in the back of my head then that Staplehouse would never be the same,” Smith says. As the pandemic dragged on, they reconnected with the neighborhood. After a brief trial of takeout and delivery, during which Smith dropped preordered charcuterie boards at people’s doorsteps, they transformed Staplehouse into a neighborhood market with prepared foods.

“My perspective has changed a lot,” Smith says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself when we opened, and multiplied that by a hundred when we started to get positive recognition. During Covid, the pressure on performing shifted to the pressure to survive. There’s a sense of relief and accomplishment, being able to get through that.”

How would Hidi feel about such a major transition of his dream restaurant? “I think he would love it,” Smith says. “Nine years ago, I tended to overmanipulate food. His philosophy was the opposite, because he was a purist and liked to focus on quality of ingredients and highlight the simplicity of cooking.”

Kara never questioned whether her brother would be proud of them for Staplehouse. “Before he died, he said it was ours to do what we wanted with it,” she says. “He wanted us to be happy no matter what. Any transformation, if it felt authentic to us, was the right choice.”

Late last year, Smith was feeling nostalgic. He and Kara decided to host a series of communally seated prix fixe dinners at the restaurant. “We wanted to take it back to the roots of what Ryan and Jen started in their house,” he says. It grew, and today Staplehouse is back to a hybrid model: A counter-service market is open Thursday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. A five-course communal dinner is offered the same evenings for $196.02 per person, with reservations via Tock. “It’s two different expressions of what we have to offer. It reminds me so often of [Hidi and Jen’s] dinner parties,” Kara says. “That feels really nostalgic and really special.”

The Giving Kitchen continues to grow as well, having helped more than 17,000 food service workers to date. It features a multilingual call center, free suicide prevention course, complimentary pop-up medical clinics, and caseworkers who provide consistent mental and emotional support. Being named one of Fast Company’s “Brands That Matter” in 2022 turned the Giving Kitchen into a household name, paving the way for national expansion. In March this year, 1,500 people gathered at Truist Park for the 12th annual Team Hidi celebration.

“I think [Hidi] would be blown away,” Jen says.

This article appears in our May 2024 issue.