Kevin Finch can clear a table in under 30 seconds.
Before you become too impressed with his housekeeping skills, know that he means he can get everyone to uncomfortably leave the table within 30 seconds. It happens when he mentions he used to be a pastor, a job that makes many people uncomfortable. “People have such negative experiences around Christians and church, and it can shut them down like that,” he says. And yet, it was his work as a pastor that first led Finch to the work he does now: serving as executive director of a non-profit organization which cares for workers within the restaurant and hospitality industry.
In a community where he knew almost everyone from the large historically-rooted church in which he served as associate pastor, and where he couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into someone he knew, Finch began to realize that whenever he went to a restaurant, he didn’t recognize anybody on the staff. It began to dawn on him that he had no connections with hospitality industry people.
This sector of the work force has the highest concentration of need of any segment, but covers this reality with a smile — the most essential part of the uniform for someone working in hospitality. To keep their jobs — serving the rest of us — those in the industry are forced to push aside their struggles and present a happy and bend-over-backwards attitude in order to earn a living. Yet behind those smiles, the local and national statistics show stunning levels of need and life-and-death struggles.
Traditionally, the food industry, which is the largest industry in the country, is a place where many who struggle find jobs find a soft landing. Single parents struggling to make ends meet; those with no education necessary to land bigger jobs; someone just out of prison or back from rehab. “It is the one place where the most vulnerable are concentrated,” says Finch. “Often, it is the last stop before they fall off of the edge.”
Once Finch saw the need, he couldn’t ignore it. While he wrote as a food critic for several local publications, he felt compelled to give back, so he decided to take a portion of his pay from his food writing and donate it to an organization that was helping this vulnerable population. He got online to look for a local organization in which the hospitality industry workers’ needs were being met, and he found…. nothing. So he expanded his search, looking statewide, then regionally, and finally nationally. Again, nothing was found.
At the time, there were 1.5 million non-profits registered in the U.S. and not one of them was geared toward helping the people of the largest employment sector in the country. “Now, I am a dog person,” says Finch, “but it was crazy that there were about 30,000 non-profits geared toward helping animals, but not one geared toward helping people who work in this field.”
It weighed on his mind as he wondered what he could do. In November 2006, Finch got his answer. He was awoken in the night and heard God say, “I need a pastor for the restaurant industry Kevin. Are you interested?”
“Um, how could that work,” he questioned. He knew the dislike of Christians among the restaurant industry, and doubted they’d be open to working with a pastor. “Christians have a reputation of coming in to a restaurant, praying for their food and then stiffing on the tip.” It seemed impossible to him to be able to find a way to help until he read a verse in Acts Chapter 2 where it says, “…and they ate together and cared for one another.” That became the blueprint for Big Table. Caring for the needs of those in the hospitality industry over food and through relationships.
Still, it wasn’t until January of 2009, over two years later, that Finch gave up his full time job — the one with a secure paycheck, health insurance and a pension — and took the first steps toward building Big Table. At the time he had enough funding to cover two months worth of expenses and payroll. It was a leap of faith.
Fast forward to eight years later, Big Table remains the only comprehensive non-profit of its kind in the U.S., meeting the needs of an often overlooked and yet extremely important part of our community. It has not only impacted the local area, but has extended its reach to Seattle where a second team serves to care for the needs of the industry workers there.
“We start around the table, not as a hotline model, but a referral model,” says Finch, describing how Big Table connects with the people it helps. Often a candidate will be referred by a supervisor or coworker, who sees and knows the struggles an individual faces. “I am more of a pastor now than I ever was when I had that title,” he says. “I sit and meet with people when their lives are hard.” He and Big Table meet these individuals in their times of need, and provide care.
A single mother with three kids who can’t afford gas for her car. A longtime dishwasher who hasn’t been back home to visit his family in 15 years and can’t afford the travel costs. A prep cook who doesn’t have a bed in his apartment. These are immediate needs Big Table can fill. Mentoring, establishing trust and building lasting relationships of support and care are the long term results of the care that is provided.
So while Finch might be able to clear a table in 30 seconds, he has also filled a table — a Big Table - in eight years, and looks forward to pulling up more chairs and welcoming more to the table.
How do you decide which local events and organizations outside of your own, you will support with your time and resources?
I like ones open to collaboration and partnerships. Since we are caring for individuals, not a group of people (like single mothers, recovering addicts, etc.), we are looking for non-profits that are willing to partner with us. Vanessa Beehan Crisis Nursery, Catholic Charities, Christ Kitchen and DENT are some that come to mind.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment other than your family?
Well, my greatest leap, which could be an accomplishment, was being willing to walk away from a job, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, to do something that no one else was doing. It was a giant leap!
What is the most important contribution you’ve made to Spokane over the last 10 years?
Bringing attention and resources to a huge need that still is largely invisible in our nation.
What qualities do you look for in a friend?
Curiosity. Someone that is not self-centered in their thinking. Joy. I tend to like people who are willing to play.
What is your most treasured possession?
My Global chef’s knife. It makes me happy on a daily basis!
With all the activities you juggle, how do you handle the stress that might come with it? What keeps you grounded and focused? I don’t always stay balanced and focus, is the honest answer. I am enough of an extrovert that I get energy from people, but if I bounce from one person to the next, I feel even more ADHD than I normally am. I have to be alone for some time, where I am at least trying to stop and be quiet. I enjoy walking. I am trying to learn the names of trees, because it lets me get outside by myself, and it is not utilitarian and useful, but just relaxing.
Do you have a cherished family tradition?
Flathead Pancakes. It is a secret family recipe, ideally cooked over the campfire, on Hughes Bay on Flathead Lake, 15 feet from the shore.
What are your favorite places to travel, and leisure activities in which to participate?
My favorite place is whatever next new place I’ve not yet been. It always revolves around food and finding a must-try place. Whether that is lobster in Maine, bagels in New York or deep dish pizza in Chicago.
What is your favorite for each of the following?
Book: Serious - The Message (written by his uncle, Eugene Peterson) | Fun – a cheesy old science fiction book called Five Gold Bands
Movie: Life or Something Like It
TV Show: Lie to Me
Who do you really admire?
My Uncle Gene
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Future goals?
I’d love to see Big Table expanded and serving in 10 more cities.
What is one thing you have to do every day?
I’m a bit obsessive about getting 10,000 steps on my FitBit.
What is, hands down, your favorite food or meal?
That is literally impossible for me to answer! At this moment I will say super white tuna sushi nigiri, if fresh; it is life changing.
Any hidden talents, or fun trivia facts about you?
I like to draw cartoon caricatures of people
Describe your perfect day.
It would involve a jet, multiple cities and Three-Star Michelin restaurants.
What are some local organizations whose causes you support, either by attending an event for them, or you are just a fan of their cause?
Vanessa Beehan Crisis Nursery, Christ Kitchen, Christ Clinic (when it was open)
What is the best advice you have been given?
Well, the most recent, most intriguing advice I have received is “If you want to be successful, compare yourself to people above you. If you want to be happy, compare yourself to those who have less than you do.”
For what are you most grateful?
The team of people that I get to work with at Big Table.
What is your favorite place you have travelled to?
Another impossible question… Manhattan…Nashville…Shanghai… London… I also truly love Seattle and Flathead Lake.
What is your dream vacation?
Europe with a Eurail Pass on the hunt for amazing food in several countries
What is something most people may not know about you?
I struggle with fear and anxiety, daily.