Someone cares for soup kitchen

COSTA MESA — Members of a national restaurant association combined their industry savvy to give a Costa Mesa soup kitchen one big treat: a $100,000 makeover.

Volunteers from the Restaurant Facility Management Assn. renovated Someone Cares Soup Kitchen on 19th Street.

They knocked down walls, converted an old freezer into a walk-in refrigerator, created a new storage area, installed an ice machine and dishwasher, replaced ceiling tiles and added stainless steel prep tables. Workers came in when the kitchen closed at 5 p.m., and worked until 1 or 2 a.m. so there was no disruption in service.

The remodel was completed in less than a week.

"It was like we were an angel that dropped out of the sky," said Tracy Tomson, the executive director of the association. "They didn't know we existed, had no idea. They had a wish list of things they wanted to do and were beginning to think about fundraising and we sort of descended upon them. We took their little list and we doubled it."

The association is a 5-year-old group consisting of major chain restaurants, such as Taco Bell and T.G.I. Friday's, and their vendors. Last year, the association decided it was time to give back, and board members decided to choose a soup kitchen or homeless shelter in the area they would hold their annual conference. This year's conference was earlier this week in Long Beach.

Association co-founder Joe Robertson said Someone Cares, founded in 1986, was the best candidate for the renovation because its volunteers "have a heart for what they're doing," and the kitchen doesn't receive a lot of money from the government, like some others.

"We went in and evaluated their needs, system and how they operate, and we made suggestions on how to make the operation more functional," he said. "They're now able to service people with much less confusion and congestion in the kitchen."

Member restaurants like Chipotle and Irvine-based Taco Bell chipped in with volunteer labor, supplies and equipment. In addition to the thorough renovation, the association also donated plates and silverware, slashing the $1,000 Someone Cares spent monthly on paper goods out of its budget.

Someone Cares Executive Director Shannon Santos said she was elated at the renovation.

"The beautiful thing is it's kind of multi-layered," she said. "It's going to increase the capacity and efficiency of how we do things. We're very much a volunteer-based organization, so we now have additional work stations where we'll be able to accommodate more volunteers in the kitchen."

The soup kitchen's founder, Merle Hatleberg, had long dreamed of redoing the kitchen, Santos said.

Restaurant Facility Management Assn. board members attended a ribbon cutting at the newly renovated kitchen Friday.

"There were tears on both sides, I have to say," Tomson said. "I'm running an association and trying to keep the members happy, the members are running restaurants trying to keep their customers happy, so it was neat to do something outside of ourselves and bigger than us. It was extremely gratifying to see what a difference we made."

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Celebrating 25 years

It all began in June 1986 with Hatleberg's purchase of a large pot. The apparition of hungry, school-aged children on her doorstep at work had moved Hatleberg — then a site director for a county-run program feeding destitute senior citizens — to invest some of the little money at her disposal.

She used it to cook up enough soup to feed about 30. And so was born Someone Cares Soup Kitchen.

In 2010, the year after Hatleberg died at age 83, Someone Cares served 116,000 meals to homeless and other destitute people, Santos said.

Now, the soup kitchen will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a fundraising benefit dinner June 11

.

Santos said Someone Cares is always looking for volunteers. More information is available at someonecareskitchen.org.

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