Foodservice Operation of the Month

On a mission: How San Diego Rescue Mission serves up creative meals with a side of comfort

Around 60 full-time employees help craft culinary magic at the homeless shelter, which aims to nourish the community, body and soul.
kitchen at San Diego Rescue
Most of the chefs in the kitchen are Mission “alumni.” / Photos courtesy of San Diego Rescue Mission

Alan Kennedy considered himself a chef at just eight years old, working under European chefs employed at his parents’ catering business.

That experience led him to a 45-year career in foodservice with a resume spanning high-end country clubs and expensive yachts.

But it’s his current position, as foodservice director of San Diego Rescue Mission, that Kennedy calls “the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” 

For nearly six decades, the Mission has provided meals, shelter, clothing, education and skills training to people experiencing homelessness across multiple locations in San Diego County. With staffers and volunteers collecting 3 million pounds of donated food and beverages annually from donors like Starbucks, Costco, Sam’s Club and Whole Foods—it’s one of the largest such programs in the country.

At the Mission, the goal is to transform those donations into meals that nourish both body and soul.

“A lot of times when someone comes in—I get a little emotional here, but—they’re really broken,” Kennedy says. “They’ve had trauma, they’ve had death in their lives, they’re frail and hurting both inside and outside. Then you get to watch them get healthier day by day, and it’s just incredible, man.”

The faith-based non-profit, which is completely donor-funded, focuses on both spiritual and physical health, Kennedy says. “Everything really revolves around food,” he adds, as residents of the shelter come together for breakfasts of fruit and pastries, lunches such as Korean beef and rice, and dinners like cranberry-balsamic chicken thighs with mashed potatoes and gravy.

About 60 of the Mission’s 200 full-time employees work with Kennedy in the foodservice division, which leverages a quartet of 36-foot refrigerated trucks to collect donations. They serve about 1,000 meals daily, not only for shelter residents but also the homeless population living on the streets.

Much of the food comes back to the Mission’s 100,000-square-foot warehouse with walk-in refrigerators and large freezers, where the team assesses the inventory. Its headquarters serves as a sort of central feeder, providing food to about 45 agencies like soup kitchens and churches for distribution.

“We like to think that God hooks us up a little bit, and then we’re able to pour that into people, mind, body and spirit,” Kennedy says. “The stuff we get is incredible: sealed veggie trays, special flours, frozen fish, even filet mignon.”

san diego rescue storage
Food donations come in from Starbucks, Costco, Sam’s Club, Whole Foods and more.

Most of the chefs in the kitchen are Mission “alumni”: former shelter residents whom the Mission now employs. Interested residents can receive a Culinary Arts certification through the group’s educational arm, Mission Academy, and the team also provides community education about nutrition.

“When people join us, some of them have what I call ‘prison faces,’ where their countenance is hard and they don’t trust anybody,” Kennedy says. “But you get to know them, you break bread together, they start to have a nourished body… suddenly that countenance drops, their shoulders are back and they’re smiling on a daily basis. I know their hearts, I know their work ethic, and we’re just so proud to provide them with that employment opportunity and help them get back to themselves.”

Other Mission alums have even gone on to other careers in foodservice, including one man who now works for a top-tier caterer in San Diego and periodically sends Kennedy photos of his plate presentations.

Kitchen Manager Howard Calbeck also speaks with pride about the staffers he oversees in the back of house, particularly when it comes to their flexibility with meal execution. After all, they don’t always know exactly which ingredients the Mission will receive in a given week.

“It’s challenging but fun,” Calbeck says. “I’d put guys like our main chef Junior, who went through our program about 11 years ago, up against any big-name chef. He can look at what we’ve got, and even if he’s never made something before, he can figure out what he needs to do to make it taste the way he’s supposed to. Sometimes it’s a matter of, well, that isn’t a vegetable usually found in pasta primavera, but let’s go for it.

seating area
In addition to serving residents, San Diego Rescue Mission distributes meals in the larger community.

About 100 volunteers also work each week to help serve meals, including large community dinners the team runs for holidays. They cooked nearly 200 turkeys this past Thanksgiving, for example, with scratch-made gravy and mashed potatoes. Christmas brought a pork loin with cheesy scalloped potatoes and roasted broccoli that Calbeck says rivaled that of any restaurant.

“It’s such a pleasure to see the people who come in off the street and join us—sometimes 1,500 people,” Calbeck says. “You just love to watch their faces and see what a real home-cooked meal means to them.”

For Kennedy—who’s also a father of five and the owner-operator of Alpine Coffee Roasters and its restaurant The Well Cafe—the Mission is a calling for him to serve his neighbors. And he never forgets that with high rents, a difficult economy and mass layoffs, any of us could easily be in the place of a shelter resident.

“Sometimes, people have this idea that a homeless person is an old man with a beard and a drinking problem,” Kennedy says. “But it’s families living in their car. It’s a 26-year-old who lost his job and can’t afford the crazy cost of living around here. It’s people who just need a hand up, not a handout.”

Get to know San Diego Rescue Mission’s Alan Kennedy

See what’s in store for Kennedy’s operation, which was named FSD’s March Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q: What makes your operation excel?

If you were to walk into my kitchen—and people do, because we have tours with donors and police departments and anyone who wants to get involved—your first impression is of a place that’s filled with love and compassion. We have a beautiful six-story building downtown that overlooks the harbor and the airport, and you see the planes flying over and you’re just filled with hope.

I always tell our folks that we are hope dealers. When someone comes in, we make a point to greet them, to find out where they were born, or if they have a sister—just see if I have anything in common with them in an effort to connect with them. … So, I really have a servant-leader attitude. I got rid of my ego a long time ago; it might be OK for a traditional chef, but here it just doesn't work. Especially in this environment, you’ve just got to be loving on people, meeting them where they're at, not judging them—and then meeting their needs.

“How can I serve you today?” is my motto.

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

Every year, we put together action plans, visions summits, that type of thing. And you know, the future is kind of scary right now with COVID and all the political theater and the economy. But we’re growing so rapidly, and people are writing checks—we have a capital campaign going on—so we’re blessed with that.

We’re renovating our bedrooms to be more modern and updated, and we’re opening new centers in old schools and former churches and other buildings the Mission has already purchased. And so, we’ve talked about me becoming something of a regional director, where I go in and I set the kitchens up, get everybody hired, do all the hiring and training, and then have an up-and-going functional facility. We’re going to be able to help so many people.

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