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Institutional Dining: Open Arms Meal Delivery

Executive Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty said he felt like all his vast and diverse culinary experiences were leading him to Open Arms.

Let’s say you have a successful, large format restaurant, with 300 seats. Each night you turn the tables twice. Even with a full house, six nights per week, you're serving 3,600 covers a week. A lot of plates, to be sure. But triple that number, and you’d be doing the kinds of numbers Executive Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty and his culinary team of eight (plus 7,000 annual volunteers) knock out each week. 

You know the chef from his already illustrious 30-year career, at Le Bernadin, at the groundbreaking Cosmos in Minneapolis, as the local founder of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry, at Cooking Matters Minnesota, which teaches cooking skills to families on a limited budget. Daugherty calls his latest move his dream job, and hopes it will be the capstone on his career. 

“The way I see it, I have 20 good years left in the kitchen. I want every second to count,” he says.

His enthusiasm is almost an element. It comes off of him in waves of positivity and enormous white grins, punctuated by chef’s pants adorned with cartoonish green broccoli florets. And yet, the job is daunting even in the face of his formidable grace. 

He originally accepted the fundraising and special events position, but soon after, the chef of the main operation exited. Did Daugherty want both jobs? He did. So now he runs the full operation,  including 11,000 weekly meals to patients and families in need, plus all of the special events it takes to help finance the enormous operation. 

He’s ready for it. 

In many cases, Open Arms provides every meal for the patient (or the “guest” as Daugherty calls recipients) as well as the family. In other words, if the sick individual is the main breadwinner, Open Arms will provide meals for everyone in the household, completely free of charge. 

What began as a grassroots effort out of a single home providing meals to AIDS patients by any means necessary, has been extended to cancer, ALS, and M.S. patients, or any life-threatening illness diagnosed by a doctor. A doctor’s note will kick off the service. 

Because of the complexities of various health conditions, it’s not enough to provide arbitrary meal selections. Instead, eight different menu plans every week make up the service, including Heart Healthy, Renal, Vegan, and menu plans specifically tailored to Latino and African clients. A different entree for every weekday, plus brown bag items to make up the remainder of the day’s meals, including staples such as bread, milk and peanut butter, but also scratch made soups, pre-prepared sandwiches, pasta salads, baked goods, and much more. 

Executive Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty said he felt like all his vast and diverse culinary experiences were leading him to Open Arms.

While the puzzle of keeping the meal plans running on time, accurately, and arriving to the correct households is one arm of the operation, Daugherty has taken on the task of rewriting each recipe in the system as it comes into rotation. Open Arms has a full-time dietitian on staff, and the two must ensure each recipe, some of them years old, are in compliance with their attendant health needs. It’s just another piece of the daily enterprise, the kitchen almost constantly in motion, with about 30 different menu items cooking at all times. 

Everything is made from scratch, including bread. And the pastry department is staffed by none other than Annamarie Rigelman, longtime pastry chef for the late Lucia’s restaurant, and widely considered one of the finest bakers in the state. 

But 11,000 meals requires chopping. Lots and lots of chopping. Open Arms estimates that about 78,000 volunteer hours annually keep the place afloat, which includes at least a thousand deliveries weekly. Seven thousand volunteers prepare, pack and deliver within the 494/694 loop. For clients who live outside of the loop, partnerships with corporations such as CH Robinson and Cargill pick up and distribute meals to employees, who then volunteer to deliver individually. 

Open Arms also works with Park Nicollet, North Memorial and Courage Kinney, stocking refrigerators on these healthcare campuses so patients going through treatments can pick up their meals on their way home. 

Indeed, there is no way the massive nature of the project could function without these volunteers, many of whom are current or former guests of the program, or family members of former guests, whether living or deceased. Some volunteer as many as four or five days per week. Daugherty says the organization engages the volunteers as much as possible. “They are our guests, too.” For instance, the kitchen puts out about 500 pieces of baked goods per day just to keep the volunteers fed. “We say no to nobody,” he says. “Which works great for me because I’m a ‘yes’ guy. 

“I cry all the way home sometimes,” he adds. “The letters—it crushes you.” He’s talking about  the endless stream of thank you notes. In a sunny corner, a massive and beautiful wooden table was recently donated by the family of a former guest who recently passed away. “Yesterday it wasn’t here. Today it is,” he says.

And in the best case scenario, some guests do recover. Many will be seen back at Open Arms as volunteers. 

Six pre-shifts a day keeps the schedule on pace, with deliveries going out five days a week. A blast chiller ensures that foods can cool down properly and super quickly, keeping things running even faster, and in the basement, this week’s meals are already portioned, sealed, flash frozen, and ready for shipment, so that the kitchen can get ahead on next week’s— everything is always operating at least a week out. 

Daugherty points at a par sheet with a colossal, calloused finger, the nail virtually non-existent from work. “So, this is all we have to do this week. Not much.” At about 400 each of beef meatloaf, bolognese, pork and turkey with gravy, that’s a matter of perspective, but just another day at the Open Arms kitchen, which, by the way is massive. How many square feet? 

“I have no idea, but it’s one of the nicest kitchens I’ve ever worked in,” says the chef, who worked at the Four Seasons once upon a time. 

“Have I showed you enough?” Daugherty is now all but sailing through the space. Open Arms also preps about a dozen special events annually to help fund operations, but he wants to push it up to 20. He’s got one coming up on Monday, and amid the trays of cryovaced chicken pozole, parsnip curry and shepherd’s pie, are a couple gorgeous sides of salmon curing in chimichurri, and at $95 a plate, will help put more meals in more households. 

Make that 11,000 meals, plus. 

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