By Paul Schlienz


The hospitality industry is working hard to better the lives of Seattle’s vulnerable homeless population.

In partnership with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, Azteca Mexican Restaurants and Aqua by El Gaucho provide monthly lunches for hundreds of people at the mission’s kitchen in Seattle’s  Pioneer Square neighborhood. This effort is through a program called Bring a Meal (BAM).

“Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission has been providing nutritious meals served with God’s love to our homeless and hungry neighbors for 87 years,” said Lori Schupbach, the BAM program coordinator. “We love that we can invite businesses to join us in serving our community together.”

BAM is a very unique volunteer service opportunity that allows businesses to do corporate team building while helping the mission address the root causes of homelessness. A hot meal offers us the opportunity to meet urgent physical needs, build relationships, and invite people into our long-term recovery programs.

“Corporate volunteers work with our chef in our commercial kitchen to prepare the meal,” Schupbach added. “They also then have opportunity to learn the names and stories of those who come in for a meal. It’s a very safe environment to begin to get to know and personally care for our homeless neighbors.”

The restaurants that participate in this program do it not only for team building, but also out of a deep sense of conviction and desire to help the most vulnerable in their community.

“Aqua by El Gaucho became involved with the BAM program when we were still known as Waterfront Seafood Grill,” said Sivi Mennen, general manager of Seattle’s Aqua by El Gaucho. “Our founder, Paul Mackay, and his son, our CEO, Chad Mackay, inspired us to engage our community. Sharing a meal and the love that goes into preparing and serving it was a natural fit for us. Fast forward one decade, and we have not missed our monthly [Bring a Meal] since and have been blessed to serve more than 30,000 meals.”

Azteca, too, became involved to do something that filled needs in the community.

“We’ve been part of Seattle for 35 years,” said Randy Thurman, Azteca’s executive director. “We believe in the city, we believe in the state and we’ve always really wanted to be part of a team to meet needs as they came up. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission fits our desire because we like the working with the people there and we like its capability and accountability.”

According to Schupbach, businesses that participate in the program can either choose their own menu or they can ask the mission to provide a menu and information on where to get the food.

“When businesses get involved with [Bring a Meal], it’s such a profound experience for them that they become regular recurring participants whether it be once a week, once a month or once a quarter,” Schupbach said. “Every major player that has worked on this and has gone to the shelter and tried this loves it so much and finds it’s been such a benefit to their team that they become regulars at the mission.”

Mennen is one of those regulars.

“By participating in [Bring a Meal], you enter into the most unique and inspirational team building experience, and in the process, you’ll meet great people, warm 250 stomachs, and hearts, too; both the ones that you’re feeding and the ones you’ll inspire to be a part of the program,” Mennen said. “You have absolutely everything to gain by lending a hand, and seeing you step up is the example that your staff needs, so they too will want to be a part of [Bring a Meal].”

The experience has deeply affected Mennen’s staff.

“The reactions from our AQUA family members are priceless,” Mennen added. “I feel like we’re always bonded, but this experience quickly puts things into perspective, while humbling and shaking us up a bit too. It can be hard to see the conditions that people are living in, and hard to hear their stories. It is not glamorous, and the extreme opposite of what we do when we open our doors for service at night, which is exactly why it has the impact that it does. It is genuinely life changing. I see that our troubles seem trivial, we are more understanding of one another, grateful and willing to lend a hand.”

For Thurman, the Bring a Meal program has also been a life-changing experience, and he especially values the relationships he’s developed with the homeless population served by the mission.

“You just can’t even imagine the relationships that end up being developed, not only with the staff and all the people you work with at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, but on Thursday, there’s probably 30 people at the mission who know me,” Thurman said. “We may have a coffee afterward and chat for a bit, have a prayer, whatever. It’s just the relationships and knowing, hey, in some small way I contributed to my brother’s wellbeing today. I get a lot more than I could ever give. When I walk out of there after the two hours, I feel so full. It feels solid. It feels rounded. My soul, my spirit has been fed with every single one of those people. When they tell me thanks for coming, nothing else matters, man. It’s just a great thing.”

Serving opportunities are available at the Hope Place Women and Children’s Shelter, in Seattle’s Rainier Valley; KentHOPE Day Center, in Kent; the mission’s Men’s Shelter, in Pioneer Square; and the mission’s Riverton Place addiction recovery center, in Burien. To find out more about the program and how your business can become involved, contact Lori Schupbach.