NOVEMBER 2010 ENTREPRENEUR OF THE MONTH
Robert Egger, founder of the DC Central Kitchen
“Hello, my name is Robert and I’m a recovering hypocrite,” writes nonprofit advocate Robert Egger in the beginning of his book, “Begging for Change: The dollars and sense of making nonprofits responsive, efficient, and rewarding for all.”
The founder of the DC Central Kitchen, who among other leadership roles was tapped to clean up the beleaguered United Way National Capital Area as interim director back in 2002, is on a mission.
“I discovered soon after I started the DC Central Kitchen that winning my war — the war against hunger — wasn’t just about feeding more people or building more efficient kitchens,” Egger explains in his book. “Even if I spent the rest of my life raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the ‘cause,’ I realized that all the money would never end hunger. Hunger is tied to other battles. It’s about education, child care, job training, AIDS work, drug counseling, affordable housing, and health care.”
“It’s about what products we buy, how we donate our money, and how we vote,” he adds. “It’s about creating a system of self-sufficiency for two things: the people we’re assisting and the services we’re providing. It’s about building alliances with volunteers, donors, corporations, and other nonprofits that all share a unified vision of the future. It’s about smashing stereotypes, and fighting hypocrisy.”
“You probably think these observations should be filed under D for ‘Duh,’ but you’d be surprised how difficult they are to implement in the nonprofit world.”
And so, Eggers is begging for change.
“With the economy dragging and other factors at play, in the coming years there is going to be a dramatic thinning out in the nonprofit world,” Egger told members of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, who gathered to hear him speak in October.
Nonetheless, he believes it’s time for nonprofit organizations to band together so they are a more powerful and organized group.
“If 30 nonprofit organizations got together and approached a bank to say they’d all transfer their accounts to that one institution — in exchange for a seat on the board of directors — they would influence change,” he says. “If they did the same with a PR firm, their mutual vendors, and other organizations that will help them grow, they’d influence change.”
Without this kind of cataclysmic shift, Egger can’t see things improving for many organizations in the nonprofit world that don’t have the financial security to plan long-term goals.
“The harsh reality is that some nonprofit organizations shouldn’t be running day to day,” he insists. “Many of them should go out of business, but because they’re in what’s called the ‘independent sector,’ neither the government nor Adam Smith’s Indivisible Hand has the power to make them go away. And that is the biggest problem of the sector: We are perpetually helping perpetually failing companies.”
How did Egger get on the giving bandwagon?
Egger wasn’t always an advocate for the poor. He started his career managing some of DC’s top nightclubs and restaurants. His 20s were spent rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in show business — Emmylou Harris, Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, and the Ramones — acts he booked to entertain the champagne crowd that gathered for lobster and filet, and yes, maybe a little cocaine.
So, how did a man who dreamed of one day opening his own Rick’s Café Américain, å la the film Casablanca, start a nonprofit to help the hungry and homeless?
The idea began to form one evening in 1989 when he and his fiancé (now his wife) Claudia volunteered to feed the poor with Grace Church in Georgetown.
“It was the least snooty church we could find to get married at,” Egger explains. “Being the new kids in the congregation, we were encouraged to volunteer for something called Grate Patrol. But feeding the poor just wasn’t my thing. Then one day we got cornered by an organizer and had run out of excuses.”
By the end of the night, after seeing so many people line up for a warm bowl of lentil soup, Egger had questions. Lots of them.
“Was this all there was to it, handing out food?” he wondered. “Where were the social workers, the homeless shelter partners, the drug counselors, the incentives to help these people get out of their situation, or at least out of the friggin’ rain?”
Within weeks, the restaurateur that had previously been somewhat of a party animal, had a new dream. “My idea was simple,” he shares. “The [homeless] nonprofits could take unused food that was thrown away by restaurants and caterers, but instead of dropping it off at shelters, they could bring it to a ‘central kitchen’ where it could be chopped, combined, cooked, and then distributed.”
And then he added a twist. “Instead of just cooking it, the nonprofits could teach the homeless people the basics of food service as part of a modest job-training program. To me, it was Food Service 101, a logical flow that seemed evident.”
It was. But it took Egger years to convince officials, donors and even the homeless that he was on to something. Challenge after challenge, obstacle after obstacle, the stubborn entrepreneur persevered. Today, the DC Central Kitchen produces and distributes more than 4,000 meals a day — and his program is a model for what to do right in the nonprofit world. Egger is the recipient of the Oprah “Angel” award, the Bender Prize, and a Caring Award.
“Change happens by empowering and educating people,” Egger believes.
Aneika Muhammad (pictured right) is one of 10 students to intern at the Washington Convention Center, courtesy of the DC Central Kitchen’s Culinary Job Training program.
In October, she was arranging rolls and breadsticks for the Congressional Black Caucus dinner. By the end of November, she will be one of the 25 students who graduate from the 80th Culinary Job Training program hosted by the DC Central Kitchen.
“These internships enable students to spend a 40-hour work week under a mentoring chef in preparation for a real working environment,” Egger explains.
The weeklong internship is just one element of the Culinary Job Training program’s professional empowerment curriculum. Throughout the 12-week program, students participate in a bi-weekly class that covers topics such as networking etiquette, the value of jobs vs. a career, and how the culinary industry works. The students participate in mock interviews with DC Central Kitchen staff to help them perfect their interviewing skills.
Still, Egger knows there is more to be done. “We need to move beyond our 19th century concept of charity and usher in a 21st century model of change and reform for nonprofits,” he insists.