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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Pastor’s restaurant reviews lead to outreach to the industry through meals

By Josiah Brown

Obsessed with food, Kevin Finch learned to cook in high school and started to collect restaurant reviews in graduate school even though he couldn’t afford to eat at the places he read about.

Kevin Finch at Big Table meeting
Kevin Finch speaks at a Big Table dinner.

In January 2009, he found a way to combine his training as a pastor and food: Big Table, a nonprofit organization that seeks to transform lives “by creating community around meals for people working in the restaurant and hotel industry, and providing practical support for the many in crisis, transition or falling through the cracks,” he said.

For 15 years before Big Table, he served in more traditional pastoral roles as interim chaplain at Whitworth University and as a pastor in Seattle and Spokane.

During 10 years on staff at Spokane’s First Presbyterian Church, food turned into more than a hobby. Kevin was in a group with the editor of Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living Magazine.  When they lost their food critic, the editor, knowing Kevin loved food and had majored in English in college, asked if he would write restaurant reviews.

On days off from the church, Kevin was paid—a meal and a small stipend—to write reviews.  After several years, he also started writing reviews for the Spokesman-Review and the Inlander.

As he became more involved in the restaurant industry, he noticed that the people were isolated.  They work when everyone else is off—nights, weekends and holidays.  So they rarely show up in churches or other community support groups simply because of the hours they work, he said.

Kevin also discovered that the food service industry alone is the largest employment group in the country. He was shocked at how many people worked in many of the restaurants.  For example, when the Northside Red Lobster opened they hired 200 people.

He also learned how tough the industry is:  “To be successful, you have to put on a smile and act like everything is good when it isn’t. That’s how you earn tips and avoid being fired.

In addition, he pointed out, government statistics indicate that the restaurant industry has one of the highest rates of illegal drug use and alcohol abuse “of any defined work group in the nation.  The divorce rate is extremely high, and daily stress levels are off the charts for everyone from owners to dishwashers. 

“Everyone is struggling to make ends meet. Most in the industry have no medical insurance or retirement benefits. Few have any safety net,” he said.

“I began to wonder if anyone was doing anything to help this tough, isolated, large community,” he said.  “I found no one had connected the dots like I had, but then few restaurant critics have a background as a pastor.”

Usually when he said he was a pastor to people in the industry that ended the conversation.

In the middle of one night in fall of 2006, he woke up and clearly heard, “Kevin, I need a pastor for the restaurant industry.  Are you interested?” he said.

Kevin believes it was God.  There was a pause, and he responded, “Yeah I am interested, but you know they don’t want a pastor. What would it look like?”

He said it was like a light turned on in the room, and a Bible opened to the end of Acts 2, where Luke describes the formation of the early church. Two things jumped out at him.  They ate together and, if anyone had a need, they took care of each other.

“Looking back, I think Big Table is exactly that idea,” he said.

It consists of sharing a meal together and taking care of each others’ needs.

Big Table holds free, six-course dinners, prepared by top local chefs every other month.  The meals are served around a table that seats 44 people.  The table, built specifically for this purpose, moves from location to location.  Anyone in the restaurant business, wait staff to owners, is eligible for an invitation.

For the first few dinners, Kevin invited people he knew as a food critic.  As Big Table’s name spread, more have become interested.  At the end of each dinner, guests suggest people to invite.   Now many of the guests are people Kevin never met before.

For the last dinner, there was a list of 150 people who could be invited for the 44 seats.

Big Table, which is financed by donations, pays for the dinners.  All the chefs but the first one were guests at a dinner and then volunteered to cook one.  Each time about 20 volunteers serve.

To care for needs of people in the restaurant industry, Kevin asks guests for names of people in need in the industry.

While some needs are too large for Big Table to tackle alone, Big Table is committed to doing something in every situation.

“We have replaced stolen computers, fixed cars, given cars, paid bills and done simple things like sending flowers on a hard day, like the anniversary of a death,” Kevin said.

One recent care project was raising tuition money for a woman server, who is going to school to be a dental assistant.  She was in a car accident this fall.  With medical bills and missing time at work, she lacked funds for winter tuition.  Big Table raised $700 for her tuition and books.

“Whether the care is big or small the reaction is the same,” Kevin said.  “People are blown away.  Many start to cry and are speechless.  I think it is because so rarely do we have instances where someone cares for us before we ask.”

For Kevin, Big Table is an experiment in finding a way to let God be God, rather than trying to do God’s job.  In the church, he felt it was his job to save people.

“It’s God’s job to save people, not mine,” he said. 

In the Bible, he sees a stream of blessing starting with God blessing Abraham so, according to Genesis 12, everyone—not just spiritual insiders—would be blessed.

“I felt God was saying ‘Kevin, your job is to bless people in such unreserved ways without any strings attached that their cynical view of life falls apart in the face of grace and then they have to deal with me, in a good way’,” he said.

At dinners, he talks about the challenges of working in the industry and about the vision of Big Table.  He also shares that he was a pastor for 15 years. In that context of blessing, people no longer react negatively.

“I am not forcing myself or Christianity on people.  I hope if they are interested, I can be a resource,” he said.  “I have fun seeing people come alive spiritually, not because I preached a good sermon or taught a good class, but because we loved them.”

So many people in the industry live close to the edge.

His dream is for Big Table to become a support network and community for people.

He will speak on “The Restaurant Industry: Life Behind The Kitchen Doors and a Big Table” at the Spokane City Forum at 11:45 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 18, at First Presbyterian Church.

For information, call 999-7429, email kevin@big-table.com or visit big-table.com.