How The Stop makes hundreds of restaurant-quality meals a day on the cheap
Running a restaurant is no easy task. Now imagine trying to do it with a staff composed entirely of volunteers, a menu that changes based on produce donated the night before, a budget of $2 per plate and a mere three hours to churn out 200 meals. It might sound near-impossible, but for Scott MacNeil, the head chef at The Stop’s Davenport Road community kitchen, it’s all just part of a day’s work. “I love to cook and I love to feed people,” he says. A tremendous amount of thought and effort (not to mention donations) go into producing the 59,400 nutritious and delicious meals the drop-in serves each year, for free, to people who would otherwise go without. Here’s a glimpse into how they do it.
At 9 a.m. MacNeil gathers up the day’s volunteers to discuss the menu and to establish a game plan. On this day, the menu is Cinco de Mayo–themed and includes cornmeal pancakes with foraged greens, a roasted corn sauce, salsa verde, green rice, pico de gallo and a savoy cabbage salad. Also: tacos smeared with cilantro cream and stuffed with a salami, bean and onion filling. (There’s a meatless version for vegetarians.)
Other than background reggae and occasional chatter, the only real sound for the first hour of work is of knives chopping onions. None of the volunteers have had culinary training, but many were drawn to The Stop because of their love of food or cooking. Last year, the total number of hours volunteers contributed to The Stop exceeded 39,000.
The kitchen, is stocked with food from a variety of different sources. 100km Foods is a major supplier, but the kitchen also receives donations from Farms and Forks. Companies like Blue Goose, Bespoke Butchers and Rowe Farms sell The Stop meat at discount rates. Without these donations, The Stop couldn’t hit their $2-a-plate budget.
At 11:30 a.m. things are running on schedule, but MacNeil knows there’s still plenty to do. “We’re heating up the tortillas—hopefully we can assemble them. We also need to make the salad. Rice is going in the steamer, and will take about a half hour. I just need to make the cilantro oil for it, and wash the bowls for the salad—and I’ve got to make a salad dressing.” Despite the long list, he’s confident that the food will be out by noon.
Fifteen minutes later, it’s crunch time, and the volunteers form an assembly line to prepare the tacos. They layer each tortilla with cilantro cream, top it with bean filling and sprinkle it with feta cheese before loading the tacos into hotel pans.
At 12 p.m., MacNeil rolls the first cart of food out to the dining hall for lunch service, which will last an hour.
All smiles, a second group of volunteers begins to serve the food to the day’s drop-in guests.
While lunch service continues, the volunteers start cleaning the kitchen and MacNeil prepares bread for the following day. Every day, 16 loaves of bread are made from scratch. The house sourdough starter came from an old volunteer, and is named Chris. “You have to name your starter,” says MacNeil. “Otherwise you’ll forget to feed it.”
At 1 p.m. the back-of-house energy begins to mellow. The volunteers take a break from cleaning to gather around the table and eat together.
“The truth is, it’s not always a job where you feel good,” says MacNeil. “There’s so much pain and struggle that you bear witness to firsthand. It can be overwhelming. But The Stop is an awesome place to work—I get to work with some of the best people I’ve ever met. We couldn’t do it without the incredible army of volunteers we’re so lucky to have.”