A typical lunch at Sunday Breakfast: Pork chops, garden salad and yellow rice

Philadelphia’s Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission isn’t like most soup kitchens these days.

Founded in 1878 by John Wanamaker and John B. Stetson (of Stetson hats), the charitable organization is the third oldest of its kind in the nation. It’s been serving free food to people in need for more than a century, but in March of this year, management began a novel experiment. During daily lunch service at the main facility, a four-story former textile factory on 13th Street behind the Vine Street Expressway, no one stands in line.

Instead, those looking for a free meal enter the cafeteria, pull up seats around cloth-covered tables, and serve themselves.

Large platters are passed from hand to hand as each person spoons their own food onto their plate, exactly how and when they want it. A few might start with a separate salad, for example, and then follow it with the main course, while others heap it right beside their meat. Another set skips the greens entirely. In the end, every plate is different. The only standardized thing across the entire dining hall is that just about everyone is smiling.

While many of us take this kind of dining for granted (it’s how most people usually eat at home), the ability to tweak a meal to your own particular taste — from timing to portion size — is a relative luxury.

“Many of our guests feel helpless in many ways — whether it’s because they don’t have a permanent home or just can’t afford to buy enough food. Family-style dining allows them to have control over something,” says Jarreau Freeman, Sunday Breakfast communications coordinator. “It’s a tiny thing, but instead of getting feeling like they’re getting a handout, they’re helping themselves. It’s empowering.”

A volunteer helps himself to lunch after the guests have finished
A volunteer helps himself to lunch after the guests have finished Credit: Danya Henninger

The benefits go beyond the opportunity to regain control of something.

“This is definitely a good thing,” remarked Homero Sanchez at a recent lunch, handing a bowl of yellow rice to his right and pulling a platter of pork chops toward him. A six-month member of the Mission’s “Overcomers” program, which takes men committed to making positive change through a daily regimen of learning and recovery classes, he was also assigned to play maitre’d for the day. When the doors to the cafeteria opened at noon, he welcomed guests and helped direct them to open tables.

“Family-style allows people to socialize and conversate,” he said. “It used to be a mad rush for food. Now people talk to each other.”

Bringing people together is central to the philosophy of Sunday Breakfast, said CEO Dick McMillen, who’s been at the helm of the faith-based organization for the past 12 years after several decades running a similar shelter in Lancaster, Pa.

“Our hope is that those we love, rescue and train will become those that love, rescue and train,” he said. Although it’s run by Christians, people of all beliefs are welcomed without question, McMillen explained. “We’ve had Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clients. It’s very difficult to qualify for help here,” he joked. “You just have to show up at the door.”

Sure enough, at the start of lunch service, a volunteer called out instructions for those who abstain from pork (for religious or any other reason) — a set of tables near the top of the room would be served platters of chicken in place of the chops.

Also at the table with Sanchez was Joshua Mills, a homeless 23-year-old man from West Philly who is an aspiring R&B singer. “You always want people to talk to,” he said as he helped himself to a second piece of bread and butter. “Some people don’t want to open up because life has brought them too many blows, but if you’re passing food around, you at least have to acknowledge each other.”

The idea to upend Sunday Breakfast’s service methodology originated as a complement to an equally positive physical change.

Located on the basement level, the dining area was once a drab, cavernous warehouse space. Over the course of the past year, a partnership with the Asian Arts Initiative (which has offices right across the street) and Cecil Baker + Partners Architects completely transformed the room. Oblong windows near the tops of the high walls now let in plenty of sunshine, and large, brightly-colored mats hang from the ceiling, doing double duty as decoration and sound-proofing.

Sunday Breakfast volunteer coordinator Nick Mendillo and CEO Dick McMillen stand with two former clients/volunteers
Sunday Breakfast volunteer coordinator Nick Mendillo and CEO Dick McMillen stand with two former clients/volunteers Credit: Danya Henninger

As the renovation progressed, kitchen staff spent months working out the details of how to staff and coordinate the new method. Food service director Julio Arroyo and volunteer coordinator Nick Mendillo took trips to an area school and a summer camp to observe how their cafeterias operated, and came back armed with tips and tricks.

“There’s less set-up since we don’t have to line up all the chafing dishes along the wall and put out burners beneath them,” explains Mendillo, “but we do need twice as many volunteers, because all the food is brought out of the kitchen and placed on tables at approximately the same time.”

“We had a lot of skeptics at first,” he says, but the change was a hit. Within four weeks, lunch crowds had more than doubled in size, swelling from an average of 50 people served at the midday meal to upwards of 120.

The next step will be to extend the family-style service to breakfast and dinner — the Mission serves three meals a day, 365 days a year — which Freeman expects will happen soon.

“It’s really about getting everyone even more engaged in the dining experience,” she says. “We want our volunteers, staff, and most importantly, our homeless guests, to develop stronger relationships and have a deeper understanding that we are all in this fight to end homelessness together.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...