Update, Feb. 13: The Kickstarter campaign didn’t get funded, but that’s not stopping the unusual philanthropic project. The Lucky Well Commissary is now accepting donations here.
Ambler BBQ master Chad Rosenthal just made a huge philosophical upgrade to his forthcoming Philly restaurant.
He’s opening an attached commissary, and will staff it with Philadelphians struggling to overcome poverty. A crowdfunding campaign will help make the socially conscious project a reality.
The Lucky Well will still open this summer as planned, with a full-service restaurant and bar on the ground floor of the multi-use building at 990 Spring Garden (also home to Roy-Pitz Barrel House). Diners can expect the same whiskey cocktails, Memphis-style BBQ, apps, sandwiches and classic sides that’ve made Rosenthal’s original spot a success for the past five years, plus some new dishes like meats and veggies cooked to order over an open flame.
But inside, there’ll be another component. In a separate space adjacent to the main kitchen, a group of workers will produce the many pounds of dry rub and gallons of sauce Rosenthal will need to keep his growing operation — which will soon include a third outpost and more — running smoothly.
If all goes as planned, most employees of The Lucky Well BBQ Commissary will be people in need. Some may even be experiencing homelessness.
“It almost came to me in my sleep,” Rosenthal told Billy Penn about the philanthropic idea. “About a month after Thanksgiving.”
Over that 2017 holiday, the 40-year-old chef, who was a finalist on Food Network Star Season 9, did some community service volunteering. He was struck by the dilemma many people in shelters face — overcoming seemingly simple barriers to gainful employment, like affording transportation or being able to come up with clean clothes.
“Every time I did it,” Rosenthal said, “I heard stories from these great people who were trying so hard, but just couldn’t turn their lives around.”
He envisions TLW Commissary as a place that provides the opportunity to do that.
The logistics of how it’ll all work aren’t easy, but Rosenthal is determined to try. He’s collaborating with Katie Everett of My City Gives, a cause-focused marketing and event production firm.
Relying on Everett’s existing connections, they’ll forge relationships with organizations like Covenant House PA, Philabundance Community Kitchen and Project Home to identify prospective commissary workers. They’ll help selected staffers get set up in a payroll system, provide SEPTA cards or other transportation help to make commuting possible, and offer clean uniforms as well as socks and shoes free of charge. These things, along with the extra equipment and a delivery vehicle for the commissary, are what the funds raised will help cover.
The bonus of the commissary operation, Rosenthal explained, is that the work is relatively simple.
“Take my 15 spices, mix them up, then put it in jars and pack ‘em up. For the sauces, read the recipe, add the ingredients and boil for four hours!”
At first, with two restaurants to provide sauce and rub for (Philly and Ambler), Rosenthal expects to have two to four people in the commissary around three times a week. But he expects the workload and staff size to grow soon, because he’s working with a national developer to grow The Lucky Well concept, first regionally, then perhaps beyond.
“Maybe I’ll start teaching [the commissary workers] to make cornbread,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get a convection oven and we’ll start baking our own brioche buns for the burgers.”
Rosenthal realizes hiring people experiencing homelessness to staff a commercial enterprise is unorthodox. But there are a few reasons he believes the project will be successful.
First, the commissary will be separate from the restaurant. “These people won’t be working the line or interacting with customers — at least not at first,” he said. (Eventually, if someone works hard and shows skill and interest, he is open to promoting them.)
Second, because he intends to hire a commissary manager who’s has mentoring skills as well as kitchen experience. And third, because those working under that manager — the people experiencing homelessness or poverty — didn’t necessarily end up in that situation as a result of being unqualified.
Rosenthal recalled meeting a former chef during one of his Thanksgiving 2017 shelter visits who talked about how hard it was to get a “foot in the door” and get a restaurant job again. The issue, Everett said, is commonly “a lack of strategic partnerships” needed to reenter the workforce.
After proving the concept in Philadelphia, Rosenthal hopes that as The Lucky Well expands, so will the philanthropic commissary. “We could have something like this in many major cities,” he said.
“If I can keep doing what I love to do, and also do good,” Rosenthal said, “it just makes sense. In my head, it all works.”