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How Bill Bracken, of Bracken’s Kitchen, feeds the hungry and stays full

Bracken's Kitchen employees serve food at a food truck feeding event.
(Courtesy of Bracken’s Kitchen)

Bill Bracken, founder and culinary director at Bracken’s Kitchen, always felt called to feed people. But after spending nearly 25 years cooking in posh five-star hotels, he found himself interested in feeding a different crowd.

“In 2008 our economy really tanked, and I watched a lot of really good people lose their jobs,” recalls Bracken. “I saw them struggle to put a meal on the table.”

Then in 2011, he found himself unemployed.

“The only thing I knew how to do was cook, so I knew I wasn’t going to open up a food pantry or food bank,” said Bracken.

He liked the idea of a restaurant that would open to the food insecure on certain days of the week, but he knew securing a location for such an ambitious project would be difficult. It also would be a challenge for those who needed the services to find them. Bracken looked for a way to bring the food to the people.

“We landed on the idea of a food truck,” Bracken said.

Bill Bracken stands with Betsy, one of the company's food trucks.
(Courtesy of Bracken’s Kitchen)

He launched his concept in 2013, and today Bracken’s Kitchen is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Garden Grove, with two food trucks, dubbed Betsy and Babs, that mobilize food options for the underserved.

But Bracken said his organization does much more. “We were born out of the idea of a food truck bringing food to the people, and that’s what we do,” he said. “But that really is the smallest part of our feeding.”

Bracken’s Kitchen works through what Bracken calls its trio of services.

“We have our rescue food program, our community feed program and culinary training program,” he said.

The food trucks fall under the community feed program, but Bracken said the majority of the kitchen’s work consists of prepared meals supplied to various regional partners for later distribution.

“Everything from shelters to after-school programs for kids and churches that do food distribution,” said Bracken.

The labor force for Bracken’s Kitchen is made up of students in the kitchen’s culinary training program, which provides work experience and the opportunity for youth and young adults to work alongside professional chefs to learn skills for a career in food service.

Trainees at Bracken's Kitchen prepare meals that partners in the region will later distribute.
(Courtesy of Bracken’s Kitchen)

“We have two blocks; the first block is mostly food education, food safety, sanitation, product development, ID, all those things,” said Bracken. “At the end of the first block they will get into knife skills, and then the second block is fully dedicated to just cooking. The goal is to give them a really good basic foundation.”

The culinary training program is tied to the food-truck feeding program and the rescued food program.

“The beauty of what we do is every day the students will be in the kitchen, and every day, what they do in practice and prep will flow right into our food program and feeding people in need,” said Bracken. “Every onion they peel, every carrot they cut goes right into feeding people. So our programs work symbiotically together to really support each other.”

The rescued food program was born out what Bracken calls America’s food-waste epidemic.

“We have rescued, year to date, 250 tons of food,” Bracken said.

Rescued food comes from many places, including leftover food from hotels and restaurants.

Bracken said one of the kitchen’s biggest rescued food donations found its way from Costco.

“We had a phone call with someone who had a few thousand pounds of roast beef to donate,” he said. “We had no idea what we were going get, but when the truck finished unloading, we had 10 to 12 pallets of roast beef.”

Bill Bracken, left, discusses meals that need to get made with trainees at Bracken's Kitchen.
(Courtesy of Bracken’s Kitchen)

The meat was packed in 2-pound packages for retail and didn’t expire for six weeks but was refused at a distribution center because the boxes it came in were damaged.

“That was thousands of pounds of roast beef that would have gone into a landfill if we weren’t able to rescue it,” Bracken said.

Bracken has many stories of how his work has changed him. He is known for often saying, ‘Feeding people isn’t the same as nourishing them.’ Compassion needs a place at the table too if you want to stay full.”

Sometimes it’s not easy.

Early on, he had a gig serving food at a local church on Tuesday nights, and there was always food left over. Afterward, he would drive to Santa Ana’s Civic Center and leave the boxed-up food for homeless people living there.

Bracken admits he felt uncomfortable and would drop off the food quickly, eager to get back to his kitchen to wash his hands and sanitize.

“I am embarrassed to say that, but I tell the story because I think that is the problem with our country, we judge everyone so harshly,” Bracken said.

The Tuesday-night drop-off became a routine, and the group at the civic center became more comfortable with Bracken and began to ask for more water or napkins, which he provided while still keeping his distance.

Volunteers serve the community from one of Bracken's Kitchen's food trucks.
(Courtesy of Bracken’s Kitchen)

“This just went on for months and months, and I never got close to them. I just jumped back on the truck after,” Bracken said.

Then one night as he was turning to leave, he heard a woman say, “Excuse me, Mr. Bill, can I ask for one more thing?”

“I turned around and she was right there, 6 inches away from me, and I said, ‘Sure, what do you need?’ And she said, ‘Can I just get a hug?’”

Bracken was shocked.

“She just grabbed hold of me and hugged and hugged, and it felt like forever, but maybe she only hugged me for 30 seconds,” he said.

Then Bracken noticed there were others lined up behind her.

“I literally hugged everyone of them. I got back in the truck and realized that no amount of sanitizer would clean me from what I just experienced,” Bracken said, though it didn’t matter at that point. “I just couldn’t leave. Of all the things they needed, they just wanted to know that someone cared about them.”

He got back out of the truck and had dinner with the group.

“It was a moment that forever changed me, and I will never forget it,” Bracken said.

The team at Bracken Kitchen is always working on ways to give back, and this Thanksgiving they are offering “Everything but the Turkey” kits, which include everything for a Thanksgiving dinner for four, except for the turkey, of course. The kit includes stuffing, roasted sweet potatoes, a vegetable medley, mashed potatoes, gravy, an apple cranberry sauce, bread and dessert.

“I don’t brag about a whole lot of things, but man, I love making gravy,” Bracken said. “And I will put up my Thanksgiving turkey gravy to anybody’s in the world.”

Kits can be purchased on the Bracken’s Kitchen website, brackenskitchen.org/everything-but-the-turkey, and picked up at the kitchen’s Garden Grove location with all proceeds directly benefitting its programs.

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