Civic News

Facing a pandemic shutdown, this restauranteur pivoted to fighting food insecurity

Former Tandem owner and chef Caitlin Cullen talks about her new role at Milwaukee's Kinship Community Food Center and the power of community: "We should choose helping our neighbors."

Caitlin Cullen.

(Courtesy photo)

When Caitlin Cullen opened The Tandem restaurant in 2016, she never set out to achieve financial gain.

Instead, the English-teacher-turned-chef saw an opportunity to teach budding chefs the culinary ropes while transforming a blighted tavern into a gathering place for Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights community.

Running a restaurant with a kitchen staff-in-training wasn’t always easy. Running a restaurant in a neighborhood facing poverty, high unemployment rates, and a litany of social other challenges made it even harder. Early on, guests sometimes faced long wait times, uncooked food, and a few workers who would “scream and walk out of the restaurant at extremely opportune times,” as she once shared with OnMilwaukee.

Over the years, Cullen’s vision started to materialize. The Tandem grew a reputation for its delicious menu and workforce opportunities. During her tenure running the social enterprise, she trained more than 150 workers, including those who were formerly incarcerated or who had never held a job before. Many of her staff went on to cultivate careers in the kitchen, she said.

But just as Milwaukee was preparing to take to the world stage as host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, the pandemic stuck and everything came to a screeching halt.

“I’m thinking the Obamas are going to eat at our place,” Cullen told Technical.ly. “And this thing happened and I thought, ‘We’re finally going out of business.”

Pandemic pivot

Like so many restauranteurs forced to shutter their doors due to state mandates, Cullen was ready to throw in the towel. She began to lay off staff and cut her menu down to the essentials. It still wasn’t enough. As she got ready to close The Tandem’s doors, she said couldn’t fathom wasting so much unused food. So with the city’s soup kitchens down and out, Cullen decided to give the food away for free.

She created a Facebook post to let the community know about the free meals. By the next morning, it had been shared thousands of times.

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“All those meals were gone in two hours,” Cullen recalled. “And we did it again the next day.”

In nearly five years of business, Cullen said the restaurant had its busiest day following the Facebook post, but the restaurant’s shrinking staff wasn’t equipped to handle the influx of paid orders and serve neighbors seeking food assistance.

“I was like, we have to choose one or the other,” she added. “And I think we should choose helping our neighbors. And we did that for a year and a half.”

Roughly a half-dozen restaurants came to aid Cullen’s cause, but it was when a buddy of hers reached out to World Central Kitchen — a global food relief organization headed by celebrity chef José Andrés — that the floodgates opened.

By winter, The Tandem was serving more than 800 meals a day and launched a food delivery program, funded in part by a $350,000 grant from the City’s CARES Act dollars. In total, The Tandem marshaled more than one million dollars to feed residents struggling during the pandemic.

In 2021, Cullen, exhausted and overwhelmed by work and personal struggles, hung up her apron after serving more than 115,000 meals. She gifted the restaurant to another aspiring entrepreneur.

The Tandem staff in December 2020. Caitlin Cullen is at bottom-right. (Photo via facebook.com/tandemmke)

A new mission

This spring, Cullen returned to her charitable and culinary roots when she joined the Kinship Food Community Center as the organization’s food director. Formerly the Riverwest Food Pantry, the Kinship Community Food Center provides a fresh food market, collaborative meals, crisis assistance mentoring, and community training. The goal is not only to feed families who are struggling with food insecurity, Cullen said, but also to help residents transition out of poverty altogether.

The center, located at St. Casimir Church at 924 E. Clarke St., certainly feels different than a typical run-of-the-mill food pantry. On a recent summer afternoon, the center is bustling with guests who are jamming to music and catching up with neighbors over snacks and a shared meal.

“There’s no standing in line,” Cullen said as she walks through the market and greets guests like old friends. “We got music playing, we’ve got coffee, and if you’re there on a Tuesday evening, we got a dinner bar going on with healthy food. We really created this welcoming, inviting environment. And then you’re not looked at as a cattle call when you’re running through a line.”

Cullen hopes to grow Kinship Community Food Center into a true community hub and contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty in Milwaukee.

“The cliches about food and community are so abundant because they are true,” Cullen wrote in her bio for the company. “When we are able to share even the humblest meal, strangers become friends and community becomes family.”

Cullen’s journey was shared in a new short documentary “In Tandem,” filmed by the Emmy-nominated team 1 Girl Revolution + Behold. The film premiered this spring.

Watch Technical.ly’s full interview with Cullen here:

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