Little John’s uses a pay-what-you-can structure to help those facing food insecurity

Little John’s was designed to create sustainable solutions so that good food is always accessible no matter the circumstances.
Dave Heide and Morgan Marsh-McGlone in front of a sign that says Future Home of Little John's
Courtesy of Little John's
Morgan Marsh-McGlone with Dave Heide has helped raise more than $70,000 for Little John’s through her virtual venture, Morgan’s Lemonaid Stand.

I named my first two restaurants — Liliana’s and Charlie’s on Main — after my first two children. When our third child was born, little John, a third restaurant seemed imminent. But it was clear to me after years in the industry that I didn’t want to open just any restaurant.

I wanted to change the way we think about food insecurity. Simply put, there is more than enough food to feed everyone. Period. The issue lies with distribution.

What would fixing the distribution of food mean for the thousands of neighbors in Dane County (12% of adults and 18% of children) who are struggling with food insecurity? Many people get groceries at food pantries and through food programs, but that doesn’t represent all who are food insecure. I believe that we can do better as a community, so I started by asking, “What if?”

three people helping cook at Little John's

Courtesy of Little John’s

What if we applied a business mindset to innovate within the broken food supply chain? What if nonprofits with meal programs could reduce costs and gain more resources for direct services? What if the meals were more nutritious and delicious? What if, at the same time, military veterans received valuable job training in a supportive environment? What if fresh, usable food that would otherwise be thrown out was rescued? And finally, what if “feel good food” was available to everyone?

Little John’s was designed to directly address these questions and create sustainable solutions so that good food is always accessible no matter the circumstances. Our model keeps perfectly usable food out of landfills and utilizes excess food from other food insecurity providers. We transform ingredients that would be wasted due to superficial imperfections and overstocking into the type of food that warms your heart and fills your soul.

Chef Dave Heide and Kevin Metcalfe with produce at a car

Chef Dave Heide (left) picks up produce from Metcalfe Market’s vice president, Kevin Metcalfe (right). Metcalfe’s Market is a supply partner that provides excess food items for Little John’s. Courtesy of Little John’s

Little John’s is about everyone sharing the same meal together. This concept is important because I believe we show love through food, and it’s the way we pass on traditions. We want everyone to know they are worthy of a beautifully prepared meal.

We have the capacity to make 7,000 meals weekly and give them to places such as Boys & Girls Club, Fitchburg Senior Center, Evening Meals on Wheels program, Oregon Senior Center and Feeding the Youth, and we’re preparing food out of a temporary kitchen at 411 Prairie Heights Drive. We will eventually have the capacity to feed 40,000 people every week — that is 2 million meals annually. We plan to rescue tens of thousands of pounds of quality produce and proteins and transform them into meals that anyone would be proud to serve their family. The business model aims to generate its operating revenue while supplying thousands of free meals to those in need.

If Little John’s was going to be sustainable, we knew we had to have nutritious and delicious meals that were made efficiently and cost effectively. A training kitchen — one that can be used for workforce development programs and as a community classroom for learning how to cook at home with the ingredients that you have — was the answer. What takes multiple chefs long hours in a regular kitchen could be prepared, cooked and packaged in less than four hours with just one chef in part due to larger equipment.

Jennifer StCyr making multiple dishes

Jennifer StCyr — a cook for Little John’s ­— along with other volunteers and staff members, helps prepare meals that are distributed to nonprofits, government agencies and more. Courtesy of Little John’s

Meal distribution is critical. We will accomplish this through our unique, pay-what-you-can restaurant, which will open at a to-be-determined date. Little John’s will have various options including in-store shopping, curbside pickup, online ordering and home delivery. We will also distribute no-cost and low-cost meals through organizations of all types and sizes such as nonprofits, government agencies, senior living facilities, day care centers and private businesses. We will do this while also providing meaningful paid culinary training and employment opportunities for military veterans.

We hope to be the community’s kitchen and restaurant, where everyone feels welcome and everyone gets to experience “feel good food.”

Chef Dave Heide is founder and executive director of Little John’s and Liliana’s. Heide closed Charlie’s on Main in 2020. To learn more about Little John’s, visit littlejohnskitchens.org.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine