If you ask Stone Soup owners Craig and Ronit Gerard, the most beautiful thing about their newly opened Old Town lunch spot isn't the fully stocked bar or their sleek platings—it's their wildly mismatched chairs.

Some look as if they're from a hotel plaza or a quaint, Irvington backyard, or maybe your grandma's basement. But while they're all different, they all display a small plaque, designating whom they were donated by: the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, Irving Street Kitchen, Toro Bravo.

"The ethos of our organization," Craig Gerard says, "is that everybody's got a little something to add to the table."

From left: Sean Sullivan, Craig Gerard, Ronit Kirshner Gerard and Scott Dolich. IMAGER: Josh Chang.
From left: Sean Sullivan, Craig Gerard, Ronit Kirshner Gerard and Scott Dolich. IMAGER: Josh Chang.

Metaphorically, the table Stone Soup sets serves the whole community. While the food is impressive—the menu includes banh mi with steamed bao and an herb-infused chicken soup it calls NY Penicillin—what happens elsewhere on the premises is perhaps more noteworthy than what's on the plate. Stone Soup will soon double as a training program for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness and lack food service industry skills. The program helps them obtain steady employment in an industry always in need of workers.

It's an idea the Gerards have been developing for eight years while bouncing between social work jobs. Their plans began to fully crystallize after they learned about FareStart, a similar community service program in Seattle, and its branch, Catalyst Kitchen, which consults similar programs. Stone Soup is now a part of FareStart's network of around 65 social service programs across the U.S.

Homelessness is often chronic, the husband-and-wife duo says. Without proper support, it's difficult to earn a wage sufficient to pay for housing.

"That population," Ronit Gerard says, "is the one that's most invisible."

The Gerards have teamed up with local homeless and poverty service agencies, such as Central City Concern, SE Works and Human Solutions, that refer to them handfuls of candidates that fit the criteria and could be a part of Stone Soup's inaugural training circuit, which kicks off next week.

After interviewing potential trainees, the Gerards plan to pick four candidates to be part of the program session. The 12-week training circuit is taught by a handful of chefs and progresses through monthly tiers. The first tier teaches basic food service skills, so trainees can earn their food handler cards and learn about hygiene and sanitation. The second tier involves more advanced skills, like food prep, knife skills, point of sale adequacy, and customer service.

The third tier gives the trainees their first taste of food service employment. They each go out on an externship at one of the various food and market establishments that have networked with Stone Soup, like New Seasons, Toro Bravo, and Meals on Wheels. There, they explore possible specializations and get valuable work experience that may lead to employment, which is the ultimate goal.

Stone Soup’s turkey reuben sandwich. IMAGE: Josh Chang.
Stone Soup’s turkey reuben sandwich. IMAGE: Josh Chang.

But the most valuable aspect of the training program, the Gerards say, is the life skills trainees learn in the food service environment—universal skills like time management, communication and teamwork. The Gerards recognize food service isn't for everyone, but they're equipping trainees with skills that will help them succeed in almost any industry.

"If we can get 50 families off social service and government assistance a year, that is a big, big win for us," Craig Gerard says. "That's 50 families that no longer need that assistance."

Using an equation they've formulated themselves, the Gerards believe it may cost $5,000 to put a trainee through their program. But considering the loss of tax revenue due to unemployment for any reason, they're estimating that roughly every dollar donated to the program will eventually come to save between $7.50 and $8.50 for the community.

Stone Soup is still working hard to round up donors, but they say the support they've received so far is overwhelming.

"We've had such an amazing amount of support from the community," Ronit Gerard says. "Hundreds of people have been stopping by to wish us luck."

Their network of helpers is growing bigger, too. Their ethos of contribution seems to be working.

"We alone can't do this," she says. "But with everyone's support and everyone's contribution, we can have an incredible impact on the community and the folks that we're trying to serve."

EAT: Stone Soup, 306 NW Broadway, 503-719-4772, stonesouppdx.com. 11 am-2 pm Monday-Friday.