5 pandemic pivots with 50Kitchen

Just three weeks after Anthony Caldwell opened his Dorchester, Massachusetts restaurant 50Kitchen, the pandemic hit.

“We went from this place being jam-packed, music bumping, people eating their food, to lights out,” he remembers.

For Caldwell, 50Kitchen wasn’t just a labor of love. It was his triumph over a lifetime of hardship and, in his view, fulfillment of a greater mission. He grew up in public housing, started selling drugs at the age of 13, and spent most of the ‘90s in prison. Eventually, he landed a cooking job in a minimum-security facility and was hired as a line cook at Legal Sea Foods. When he interviewed, he didn’t know what a line cook was. By the time he left, he’d mastered every station.

After leaving prison, Caldwell struggled with alcohol addiction and began having suicidal thoughts. One afternoon, as he was watching the YouTube performer 50 Tyson with his friends, he blurted out during a drunk rap session, “Bump 50 Tyson, I’m 50Kitchen, the boss with the sauce.” 50Kitchen had a nice ring, he thought.

In 2011, he heard a voice tell him that if he stopped drinking, he would have his own kitchen by the time he turned 50. In 2017, at 49 years old, he won an entrepreneurship competition to join CommonWealth Kitchen, a shared kitchen space building a food economy grounded in racial, social, and economic justice. He left a steady job as a chef at Harvard to finally launch 50Kitchen, a Southern American and Asian fusion-style restaurant.

Caldwell may be the owner, but he sees 50Kitchen as God’s restaurant—and during the pandemic, when more people needed help than ever, giving back was his top priority. Here are five ways he showed up, adapted, and kept going for his community.

1. Stay flexible to stay open

When COVID-19 shut down restaurants across the country, like most operators, Caldwell panicked—but he didn’t let fear stop his dream in its tracks. He closed 50Kitchen for just three weeks, and he’s been open ever since.

“I put the boxing gloves on,” he says. “All the hell that I’ve been through, I need a little more than COVID to shake me.”

He cut hours of operation to match demand, posting on social media to gauge people’s interest. Eventually, he opened for two five-hour days a week. Flexing hours allowed him to run with fewer staff members, reducing labor cost.

50Kitchen also introduced takeout and delivery services and, leveraging the city of Boston’s temporary outdoor dining program, built a patio. From July to October, Caldwell’s outdoor business boomed, and he expects it to do the same this summer.

While he feared failure, he knew people were depending on him. “I had to come up with a game plan where I can punch COVID in the mouth, get past it, defeat it, and keep the doors open and still keep people safe.”

2. Feed those in need

When Caldwell pitched his restaurant concept in 2017, he emphasized that he wanted to help others. The pandemic presented new opportunities. Through CommonWealth Kitchen’s CommonTable initiative, which leverages local food businesses to feed families in need, Caldwell prepared meals for his most vulnerable neighbors. So far, the program has distributed more than 130,000 meals to the Salvation Army and other organizations.

In turn, the community has supported 50Kitchen. “They wrapped their arms around me and squeezed on me and loved me,” Caldwell says. “They were coming into this restaurant like crazy.” Others wrote checks for $500 or $1,000 without taking any food.

That exchange is what keeps Caldwell going. “I’ve taken so much from this community, and I’m obligated to give back.”

3. Lean on mentors and allies

When telling his story, Caldwell credits people who believed in him along the way and those who have encouraged him through the challenges of the past year.

There’s Patrick Keefe, the chef at Legal Sea Foods who developed his culinary skills and trusted him to keep the kitchen humming. And Travis Lee, the landlord who believed in him enough to help with the restaurant build-out and cover funds after contractors ran off with $30,000. The CommonWealth Kitchen team continues to be like family to him, offering advice on administrative tasks, such as how to access government funding.

Support has also been key to his sobriety. He advises others who are trying to stay sober to “find someone you can trust, and make that person your 24-hour hotline.” Choose a confidant to talk to when times are hard, and use their company as a safe haven.

4. Share your story

From life on the streets to addiction and finding religion, Caldwell has been transparent about his road to success. That’s because he hopes to inspire others facing similar challenges.

People who know his story gravitate to the restaurant because of it. They come in on Sundays to mark two months clean and sober, or to be there for family members who are facing hard times.

Since opening, he’s appeared in publications such as Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe, and his photo has covered MBTA buses and billboards as part of the All Inclusive Boston campaign, which highlights the city’s diverse communities and businesses.

“There’s no way that I could have imagined ever in a million years that I’d come as far as I’ve come,” he says. “As long as I can tell my story and save someone’s life, I’ll tell my story 10,000 times a day, every day, without regret.”

5. Let the past shape the future

Like many restaurateurs in 2020, Caldwell has had moments of wanting to throw in the towel––but his life experience has taught him to keep going. “If I was to give up, it would be impossible for me to tell somebody else, ‘Don’t give up,’” he says. “I have to fight this good fight.”

Currently, 50Kitchen is short on staff, which means Caldwell is wearing all of the hats: chef, owner, general manager, problem solver, catering manager, and HR. Every day, he’s pursuing a different strategy to stay open, but he feels optimistic about the future. “It’s not slowing down any time soon,” he says.

When 50Kitchen celebrated its first anniversary of being open, Caldwell posted his joy all over social media and extended a 20% discount to the neighborhood. Fans wrote to congratulate him. In the months and years to come, he plans to start a chef’s table, a food truck, and more 50Kitchen locations.

Like the rapper Jay-Z, Caldwell is proud that his mother no longer has to worry about him being chased by the police or facing prison time. 50Kitchen, and the journey that led him to open it, is too important. “I told her she will never have to worry as long as I have a restaurant in my name.”

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