By Brad Scriber
This Thanksgiving will be Robert Egger’s last one as president of the DC Central Kitchen, the powerhouse social enterprise he founded almost 25 years ago to shake up the way this city feeds its hungry citizens. In January 2013, he will step down and relocate to Los Angeles where he will start the LA Kitchen. This new venture will focus on utilizing and preserving surplus produce from California’s farmlands to provide nonprofits with high quality vegan and vegetarian food year-round.
“It’s been nothing, I mean nothing but enthusiasm,” Egger says of the reaction in LA to this announcement. The welcome has come from nonprofits, but also from farmers, who have told him “we will deliver tractor trailers to your door daily. Just tell us when.”
For those who may wonder, it’s too late to volunteer for this year’s Thanksgiving shift at the DC Central Kitchen. They’ve been booked up for a while now. In fact, they’ve already filled all the slots for Thanksgiving 2013.
The wild popularity among the kitchen’s 12,000 annual volunteers is a big part of the legacy that Egger will leave behind when he moves to California. “When you get involved with DC Central Kitchen you really feel like you’re part of this family,” says Chief Development Officer Brian McNair, who started as a volunteer himself a decade ago.
Of course the innovative model has attracted praise from more than just volunteers. President Bush Sr. named the kitchen as one of his Thousand Points of Light. Oprah’s Angel network has honored its work. Numerous foundations, publications both local and national, the DC government, the DC Chamber of Commerce, and private corporations have all honored the kitchen with accolades.
This recognition is the result of some staggering statistics. Since its operational launch in 1989 the kitchen has produced some 25 million meals. They provided DC school cafeterias with 600,000 meals in 2011 alone, none of which were deep-fried. The 1.86 million meals the kitchen prepared for nonprofits last year freed up $2.6 million dollars, money those organizations could devote to their respective missions instead.
Donations from hotels, convention centers, and restaurants have salvaged countless tons of high quality food that otherwise would have rotted away.
More than a thousand men and women have graduated from the kitchen’s challenging 12-week culinary training program, most of whom were formerly incarcerated, and virtually all of whom leave with a job. Every graduate earns a ServeSafe certificate, a valuable asset recognized across the country.
The kitchen is a $10 million dollar enterprise that earns more than half of its own money from operations, not donations.
But the numbers that make Egger the most proud are those that speak to the broader impact beyond just the food. Statistically, about half of the graduates might have returned to jail were it not for the training they received. Now the 80 alumni trained each year earn $2 million in salaries, pay $225,000 in payroll taxes, and save the city millions of dollars. “That’s a big leap form just the touchy feely side of the kitchen” Egger says.
Egger’s vision has never been constrained to just replacing one soup kitchen with a social business. He has also been one of the country’s most outspoken, unflagging champions for the overall importance of the nonprofit sector.
He demonstrated his willingness to fight for his organizational brethren in 2002, when he took over as interim director for the United Way of the National Capital Area, a vital source of operating funds for hundreds of area charities. Facing investigations for mismanagement and abuse, it was in a post-scandal freefall and needed someone to step in quickly to restore confidence. “He was the only who had the courage,” says current CEO Bill Hanbury.
He’s no apologist for charities, though, repeatedly challenging nonprofits to innovate and evolve, and condemning those that use their mission statements to shield bad business practices. Egger spelled out his vision for a 21st century sector with his award winning book Begging for Change, and has touted it with countless speaking appearances from coast to coast.
With CForward, the political action committee he founded, whose name is a roguish nod to its nonprofit 501c4 tax designation, Egger is asking politicians to recognize the value that nonprofits provide to their communities.
Egger has also been a great ally and advocate for Street Sense, serving as the first president of the Board of Directors, as well as reaching out on an individual level. “In all the years I’ve known him, he has never hesitated to respond to my requests to help homeless individuals who had asked me to call on him,” said James Davis, a former board member and nine year vendor. “I thank him for all he has done for the city and as a friend I will certainly miss him.”s