Today we’d like to introduce you to Bill Bracken.
Bill, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I had no idea. Literally no idea the impact my decision to create and start Bracken’s Kitchen would have on so many people. I guess there’s a lot of people walking through life wondering if there isn’t something more. Something more meaningful, something more heartfelt or just something more that they should be doing. What is the meaning of life is a question that’s been asked for generations. After all, deep inside of every one of us is a longing and desire to know that in some small way, it has made a difference that we have lived. People often ask me about the decision I made to walk away from a successful career as a semi-celebrity chef to feed the homeless and less fortunate. I certainly couldn’t have chosen a new career path with more of a contrast from my past life. I’ve gone from feeding celebrities, movie stars and presidents to feeding the working poor and hardcore homeless in our communities and I’ve never been happier. God has truly blessed me through this.
While I know it’s common and cool for sports stars to point up to God when they do something great on the field of play but in my case, my story is pretty simple, God truly did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. You see, I was always a slave to money. Not because I needed fancy things but because of the immense fear and insecurity in being able to provide for my family. I attribute this to the time in my childhood when my father’s company, ironically Seitz Foods, was on strike and he wasn’t working. My bedroom was closest to the kitchen and I remember lying in bed at night while mom and dad sat at the kitchen table trying to figure out how they would get by. They worked so very hard to ensure that we kids had all that we needed and never went without but those times were very tough. There were lots of nights when dinner was a slice of white bread and some soup poured over the top, ie: SOS, “Stuff On a Shingle” 😊 I believe it was that time in my life that created this immense pressure to be able to earn a decent living and provide for my family that drove me. That and the desire to make my father proud of me. I am not sure how a country boy from a town of a little over 1000 people ended up in Beverly Hills but I did. Along the way, I got caught up in the career rat race.
After all, I lived in Southern California and worked in either Beverly Hills or Newport Beach for more than 25 years. What you wear, what you drive, where you dine and who you hang out with was the world I worked in. A world driven by success which was defined by the size of your bank account. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with success and wealth but when the drive and desire to achieve it blinds you to what is going on all around you, there’s a problem. I got caught up in that to some degree and lost my way. My focus on my own success and fear of providing for my own family caused me to have a blind eye and lack of compassion for those with so much less. That drive to succeed and make dad proud fueled me and was my only priority. When our economy took a huge hit in 2008 -2010, I watched a lot of really good people lose their job.
While the place I was working was still making a profit and doing ok, friends were still let go and struggled to get by. And I mean really struggle. There were no jobs to be found. To see a grown man with a wife and two kids not be able to buy their child a Christmas present and barely put a meal on the table affected me. I knew then that I was being called to serve and help but didn’t know how and quite frankly was too afraid. At the hotel, I was tasked with unbelievable expectations and out of fear for my own financial survival put my head down and did what I was asked. I became detached and unfazed by the struggles of the people who worked for me. I was too worried about my own future to worry about theirs. Then the unthinkable happened. At 48 years of age, I was fired for the first time ever. I was walked off property and thrust into the lines of the unemployed. The fear, shock and dismay of being unemployed didn’t last long at all as I knew it was my calling.
Losing my job in December was truly one of the bigger blessings in my life. I got to enjoy Christmas off and with my family for the first time in my adult life. I was invited and actually able to attend a New Year’s Eve party. I had never been to one of them before then. I was always cooking. What a blessing. While I struggled with many fears and emotions of being a 48 years old unemployed chef, I knew it was part of a bigger story. The real fear was that my profession is a young man’s game and here I was old and out of work. In spite of the stress of it all, it was truly an immense rebirth of sorts. No longer was I a slave to corporate America, I was free. I highly recommend it to anyone caught in the corporate whirlpool. Soon after my departure, I received many calls from people wanting to put me to work. Moving was out of the questions so I settled on a local project. While I truly wanted to focus on feeding the less fortunate, I again got caught up in the money hustle with an investor who wanted to open a dozen restaurants. Needless to say, that project was a complete failure and there was no doubt then that I really needed to figure this feeding the less fortunate thing out. I worked on a concept and built a business plan around a restaurant that would give back. I worked on several consulting projects to pay the bills. My wife was a trooper through it all and worked hard to help keep our family above water financially.
When I lost my job, she was a stay at home mom and raising our two years old. God truly blessed me with her and her willingness to do whatever she had to do in order to help me make this happen. As I look back now, all of my early efforts and ideas had a common thread. I was desperately trying to hold onto that former life in luxury hospitality. Little did I know then that deep inside, it was my ego that was fueling this need. As I tried many different things, even starting a Filipino Pastry concept, the only thing that gained traction was Bracken’s Kitchen. Now I got to ask you, what does a red neck country boy from Kansas know about Filipino Pastries, but still I tried. When we finally landed on the concept that would come to be known as Bracken’s Kitchen, I started the tedious work of getting our 501©3 status and building out the plan. We found out in the fall of 2013 that our application was approved and suddenly, we were a bona fide nonprofit. I was knee deep in a couple of consulting projects so Bracken’s Kitchen got moved to the back burner until early 2014.
It was in the fall of 2014 when I came to the hard realization that if I was ever going to make this thing work then I needed to focus on it full time. I think that was one of the hardest leaps of faith. To walk away from all sources of income to focus on this and not take a salary was scary but needed. It was as if God was saying, about time. It was only then that things started to fall into place. Betsy ended up on our doorsteps in December of 2014 as a gift and that one simple act forever changed our course. No longer was 2015 going to be a year to fundraiser and buy a truck. Suddenly we had one and off we went. Our first feeding event was even before we had Betsy but once we got her, we really started feeding people and never looked back. Fast forward to today and we have our own 9,000 sq ft kitchen and a staff of 26. On average, we are recovering just over 4 tons of food a week and providing around 8,000 meals a day. In 2020 we recovered more than 450,000 pounds of food that would have otherwise gone to the landfill and provided more than 1,749,000 meals to our friends in need. Needless to say, Bracken’s Kitchen looks vastly different today and we are excited about our future. While the impact of Covid has been horrendous, we are so very grateful to be in a position to be help to help so many people.
We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
Very few things are ever easy in life. Life is a journey and we always hit lots of potholes and road bumps along our journey. But I truly believe that every obstacle, every struggle and every setup is just an opportunity for us to learn and grow and mold us into the people we are meant to be. That is if we chose to learn and grow from them. The journey to Bracken’s Kitchen has been no different. My career in luxury hospitality came with lots of struggles. If you are familiar with the late Anthony Bourdain and his book Kitchen Confidential then you have a little insight into the life I lived. Feeding the top 1% came with enormous challenges from both guests and leaders. I’m pretty sure I worked for one of the best but also meanest man in hospitality.
At the same time, I’ve dealt with celebrities that would scream and yell at you in a way that most people could not handle. It was just all par for the course. I think my hardest struggles came with the roadblocks on the journey of Bracken’s Kitchen. What made them so hard was the fact that I was doing something that was about so much more than me. When hurting and hungry people are depending on you and you face obstacles, man that is hard. From losing our kitchen space early on to fires on the food truck to legal challenges, we faced it all but have come out on top with our head held high, our morality strongly in place and better for it.
We’ve been impressed with Bracken’s Kitchen Inc., but for folks who might not be a familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Bracken’s Kitchen is a 501(c)(3) organization based in Orange County, California. Founded in 2013, our mission is simple: Through food recovery, culinary training and our community feeding program we are committed to recovering, re-purposing and restoring both food and lives. What that means in practical terms is that we spend our days in the kitchen doing what we do best, cooking tasty and nutritious meals for those who struggle to feed themselves and their families. Through our food trucks Betsy & Bab’s and our network of partners, we distribute thousands of complete, hot, tasty and nutritious meals every week. We all share the two most basic human needs for survival, the need to breathe and the need to eat. The problem is that air is free, and food is not. It is that simple fact that gives food such enormous power over a person’s life. We’ve learned firsthand that there is no better way to intimately get to know a person than sitting down and breaking bread with them. We literally deliver hope, one tasty meal at a time. The heart of who we are can be found in a statement first uttered in 1957 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr; “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” At the core of our mission is a deep commitment to our nonprofit charity partners, business and professional supporters, volunteers, donors and employees. Our relationship with each and every one of these groups is as important to us as those we feed.
What was your favorite childhood memory?
Ohhhh, that’s a hard one cause I am such a sentimental fool. Too too many to choose from but if I have to pick one, it would involve my Grandma Bracken. She was a simple woman who lived a simple life, almost 30 years after her, my grandfather, husband passed away. She was an amazing cook and I always loved visiting her house, especially at Christmas time. She would bake cookies and cookies and more cookies. She would put them in metal cookie tins and put them under the bed in her North bedroom. That room was never used and had to heat going to it so it was always very cold in the winter and a perfect place for the cookies. When we visited her in December, it was always straight to the North bedroom to see what kind of treats we could find. Her sugar cookies and date pinwheels were legendary and both recipes have been used and served at the Peninsula Beverly Hills during my time there.
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