Fire closes soup kitchen, but no meals missed

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 09, 2016

On Oct. 4, a Sunday, some 56 firefighters responded to a blaze at the Over the Rhine Soup Kitchen that put the facility out of commission. There was extensive smoke damage, but if anyone thought service by the city’s oldest soup kitchen would be discontinued, or even interrupted, they were wrong.

Nearly 4 months after the fire, a renovated kitchen is expected to open by the end of this month — and OTR Soup has not missed a single meal, fulfilling its schedule of meals served five days a week, every week, to an average of 200 people per meal.

Firefighters originally believed the blaze, at 1620 Vine St. (at the corner of Liberty and Vine), began with a water heater on the roof of the building. But Patricia Wakim, executive director of the soup kitchen, said it’s now understood the fire started when a bathroom ceiling fan shorted out.

“The equipment was fine,” said Wakim, “but we still had quite a bit of restoration to complete to go back in and operate as a kitchen,” meeting codes as well as making sure fans and gas lines are safe and in working order.

“What we did,” she said, “is after the fire, the first working day, I met with my team” of seven people who operate the organization’s three food programs — the Walnut Hills Kitchen, Over the Rhine Soup Kitchen and the Walnut Hills Pantry — “and what we (decided) is that why we’re there is to serve the folks, and that’s what we had to focus on. It’s not the building; it’s about the folks. A building can be replaced. … And everybody stepped up to the plate.”

Staying on schedule has taken ingenuity and stamina, the flexibility of a large group of volunteers — and additional funds and donations.

The serving of meals moved outdoors to the alley. And, because there was no longer a kitchen, food for the OTR program had to be prepared off site. The OTR kitchen serves meals every day except Mondays and Fridays. Weekday meals are prepared at the organization’s Walnut Hills kitchen and driven to OTR. On weekends, 21 different religious and secular organizations prepare food either in their own church or synagogue kitchens, or even in their homes, and drive it all to Vine Street. Before the fire, these same groups prepared food in the OTR kitchen on weekends.

And because the meals must be transported, the menu had to change.

Wakim explained, “We modified our entire menu because basically we serve a hot meal” under normal circumstances. But now meals are preassembled in Styrofoam to-go boxes, and they had to last without constant heat.

“Everybody started getting creative. … We’d make chicken salad, tuna salad, fruit, dessert. Water. (Warm) chicken and potato salad. Kind of like picnic food” that didn’t need to be kept warm to be safely served. “We’d make sandwiches, and we’d have chips. … We were trying to swing it up so each day it was some type of different sandwich, or it was a salad container.”

On Thanksgiving, Wakim said, they served a “Thanksgiving sandwich,” the recipe for which they found on the Food Network. “We tested it with 10 different people to see if it was good, and out of 10, one disliked it, I was on the fence, and the other eight said it was great.”

Meanwhile, Wakim estimates that the number of people being served grew by about 10 percent, possibly because now that food was being served outside more people were aware of it.

Expenses rose, too. Wakim estimated that costs climbed by 60 percent. The increase in cash outlay, she said, is covered by insurance. In-kind donations from vendors and volunteers play a large role, too.

“It’s not cost-effective to make sandwiches,” she said. “You would think it would be easy, but it’s easier to prepare a large (hot) meal — you can make chili and all kids of things, spaghetti, meatloaf — but when you’re making sandwiches, there’s so much detail because … you’ve got the cheese and the meat … and you have to have everything separated and all those items are not cost-effective at all.

“It takes a lot more work, we found out, to prepare a meal for the outside. … The kitchen’s a lot easier.”

But, Wakim added, there has been a lot of camaraderie. “The team was unbelievable.” As for the guests, she said, “There's a lot of wonderful people down there (in OTR).

"They’re grateful that we didn’t close down, which many folks thought that we would do — but we didn’t. … We’re just going with the flow and trying to stay very positive.”