Keeping the Light on

For the first time, PRUMC caterer and outreach donor Gourmet Innovations is offering full Thanksgiving meals to go. As owner Bob Brinson (Chef Bob) notes, “After months at home in this pandemic, everybody’s sick of cooking! So we figured, let us do it for you while you just enjoy your family.” The Thanksgiving Meal is one of several pandemic pivots that Bob and his team have conceived, many of these ideas also supporting PRUMC’s outreach. Read more below about how Chef Bob and his wife and partner, Michele Howard, are bringing good food and good work together.

KEEPING THE LIGHT ON

Sometimes when you’re all set to zig, life forces you to zag. Finding the means to do that and help other people along the way is no small accomplishment. PRUMC members and married couple Michele Howard and Bob Brinson had already made major professional changes to start Gourmet Innovations, a food service business, before they joined the church years ago. Add an ongoing internal tug to “give back more,” a perspective-changing Disciple class, a world pandemic that brought their business to a halt, and a team of employees still looking to them for a lifeline, and the result has been a variety of new initiatives that have reshaped their business model and provided new support for local and global outreach at PRUMC.

Asked to talk about recent events, they describe a combination of heart and pragmatism. “Before the pandemic,” Bob says, “we wanted to do something different because we have a very gifted baker on staff, Jerry Moore, and we wanted to show what he could do and find a way to give back to the church. So over a year ago we started an online bakery, and we’ve been giving 5% of the proceeds in turn to different PRUMC local outreach partners. [Right now, the recipient is PAL, the Police Athletic League, because they’re trying to do so much to help children during COVID and the school shutdowns.] But then came COVID, and that sort of dried up as the church was locking down, so we were looking for a way to still leverage the church kitchen and help people out.”

That led to a Feed the Frontlines campaign. “Using financial donations, we provided meals and baked goods, largely to Piedmont and Grady hospitals, from April through June. In the middle of October we started a second campaign, and this time we’re including precincts from Zone 2 (which covers PRUMC) of the Atlanta Police Department,” he adds.

COVID also shut down what was arguably their most ambitious effort to help people who are struggling. “From the beginning when Bob got the contract to be the caterer for PRUMC,” Michele explains, “he wanted to help further the church’s mission. At the same time, I was very interested in a prison ministry. We came up with the idea of a culinary training program for people recovering from incarceration and addiction. In October 2019 we started FareWorks, under the umbrella of PRUMC and Beth Spencer. The idea was that we would teach people the culinary arts through a combination of classroom and hands-on training, they would work for Bob for 12 weeks, and then we’d help them find permanent positions.”

Bob adds, “We had some local connections with restaurants here in the area, to help them outplace. And we had people who would help them with their resumes and interview skills.” They were within three weeks of graduating their first class, a group of four, when COVID hit. Despite the setback, they are not deterred and are excited to restart the class as soon as conditions are safe. Michele continues to be involved in a prison ministry, through a special program she and Ed Hamlin began, creating Exit Bags of toiletries and clothing for women who are leaving the prison system in Atlanta.

Having been so involved in local outreach, they began thinking about ways they could partner with the Global Missions team and came up with an idea that may be their most creative. Reflecting on the fact that he regularly cooked with a few go-to spice blends, Bob wondered whether the countries PRUMC supports might have their own such blends. After doing some research and learning that they did indeed, Bob and Michele are launching an array of spice blends in their online store, including one each for PRUMC’s four partner countries, Belize, Georgia, Guatemala and Kenya.

As Bob says, “We actually have about 10 different blends we’ve developed, and we’re planning to launch those at the beginning of December. For the four that are specific to the countries that the global mission teams visit, we’ll give 5% of the proceeds to PRUMC’s Global Missions ministry. We’re planning to do some other fun things to promote them, like getting a few PRUMC members who have been on those mission trips and are familiar with the countries to do short videos, with them cooking in the kitchen using those blends.” A four-pack of the global blends will be available for holiday gift purchase.

All of these projects represent the giving spirit that Bob and Michele have evinced, as does his most basic weekly giving from the kitchen. Bob notes, “We’ve always fed our homeless friends that have been around the church. I told them that if the light’s on in the kitchen, they can knock on the window and I’ll feed them. We continued to do that after the church had to lock down, though there aren’t as many now. Probably 10 a week. But they can still just come and knock on the window.”

He finishes, “We have been blessed through this whole COVID thing that we haven’t had to lay anybody off. We’ve been able to meet payroll, thanks to a PPP loan, and we’ve had some volume through the business. The Thanksgiving meal will support the business and hopefully help make people’s holiday a little easier. I’m not as well-versed as my wife and many other folks in the church on the Bible. I just feel like you show your faith through what you do. I’ve been given a lot of gifts and a lot of second chances. Michele has always said that you show the love of Christ best by acting. We are called to act.”

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Bob and Michele have been married for 18 years and members of PRUMC for about five years. He left a career in agricultural equipment sales and she left a career in corporate development so that they could follow a path that brought more peace and satisfaction. They are parents to Evie, 15, and Tessa, 12.

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