Nathan Lonsdale Bledsoe ’09 and Lucas Marr ’08 became friends at Rice through their love of cooking. When Hurricane Ike thundered through Houston in 2008, both helped the servery chef at Lovett College make meals for everyone staying on campus through the devastating storm.
Now another crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, has brought the culinary duo back together again to serve the greater good of the community. They have created the Furlough Kitchen Houston, a pop-up restaurant that offers high-quality meals to anyone who has been furloughed, laid off or are simply struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic. And proof of need is not required.
“I have a pretty deeply held theological belief that we shouldn’t test folks who say they need some help,” said Bledsoe, who has been a pastor since 2013. “Some of the people coming through the line have been out of work a lot longer than COVID has been a reality.”
Marr added that most of the people receiving the meals are down on their luck, but some are picking up meals for their elderly neighbors. “We feel like there is a lot of shame around food insecurity in this country and people are hesitant to use food banks or soup kitchens,” Marr said. “We hope that with a name like Furlough Kitchen that it doesn’t have any of those preconceived notions about getting a good hot meal when you need it.”
Furlough Kitchen operates out of St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, where Bledsoe is a pastor. The church is located at 2003 W. 43rd St. in Oak Forest, a neighborhood in northwest Houston. The kitchen is not a dine-in place but offers curbside pickup on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the church. The process is contactless as volunteers place the packaged meals in the backseat, trunk or cargo area of vehicles.
Since the first meal was served April 28, Furlough Kitchen has provided more than 1,000 meals. The kitchen gives 15 meals each Tuesday and Thursday to families from nearby Stevens Elementary School, and then provides 100 to 110 meals to people who drive in for pickup.
“We focus on making sure that we have hearty portions for all our meals,” said Marr. “It would not be difficult for each plate to easily feed one adult and one child.”
Not only are the portions generous but they are made by chefs who cook whatever they like to cook. Chefs Christian and Alexandria Catalan, who were laid off from their jobs at Morsel & Crumbs Catering, prepare the meals on Tuesday, and Bledsoe and Marr prepare them on Thursday. The four have offered such appetizing food as jambalaya, Mexican carnitas and enchiladas. One week, Marr, who runs a barbecue catering service on the side, brought his trailer pit and cooked barbecue chicken.
“We’re not intending to serve the cheapest possible meals and, of course, we’re not serving filet or lobster, but I think if a cook likes what he or she is cooking, the results are better,” Marr said. People who want a free meal can simply go to the Furlough Kitchen website and order up to five meals.
The idea to start Furlough Kitchen came to Marr after viewing the website of a group from Dallas who had started a similar kitchen. The Dallas group offered to setup franchises in other cities. He and Bledsoe went to work and within two weeks had put together a nonprofit organization so that they could accept donations.
Furlough Kitchen has received support from St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, the neighborhood and friends. Also, the Rainbow Lodge, Hartz Chicken Buffet, Frenchy’s Fried Chicken and Artisana Bread have provided food and ingredients for the meals. Recently, Furlough Kitchen partnered with The Common Market Texas, which is a nonprofit that provides organic produce, to sell their products and receive a portion of the proceeds.
Marr majored in mechanical engineering at Rice and worked for several engineering companies in Houston. He admits that starting Furlough Kitchen was a way to get out of the house and do something he enjoys, especially cooking for big groups the way he and Bledsoe used to cook for the Owlcoholics Tailgates at Rice football games.
“This was an easy way for me to help some folks out and enjoy cooking for big groups again,” he said. “In the month that we have being doing this, I’ve seen how much good we are actually doing. The thanks we get from people enjoying our meals has been really rewarding.”
For Bledsoe, who double majored in history and religious studies, said the Furlough Kitchen aligns well with the core values of his church, which states that everyone is a beloved child of God, that the church does not belong to them and that God is in the neighborhood and not just in their building.
“With these values, using our resources and space to do something like the Furlough Kitchen was a no-brainer,” Bledsoe said. “This has been a really meaningful and exciting way to use the church’s facilities.”
— David D. Medina
Multicultural Community Relations