"Our goal is to create an atmosphere of love through food."
At Oliver Gospel, a meal is so much more than just something to eat. Our food provides hope for our guests and an opportunity to transform their lives.
Behind every meal served at Oliver Gospel and Toby’s Place is a wonderful kitchen staff led by Geno Pickard and Penny Fletcher.
I sat down with each of them to learn more about the incredible work they do for our organization.
When did you start cooking?
Geno: I cooked in Denny’s restaurant when I was a teenager. My dad was involved in Denny’s for over 40 years, so I followed in his footsteps.
I was incarcerated for a while, which is a part of my testimony. I cooked in the kitchen and was on the kitchen staff while I was incarcerated. It really allowed me to learn and grow. It was my first experience with cooking for a mass amount of people.
Penny: I started by going to culinary school 17 years ago. I always loved to cook, but I thought I needed a little bit of guidance and formal training. I started a catering company, and my customers were all coworkers, friends, and family. I have quite a variety of things I can do.
I retired from the hospital in 2018, and I went to work for Lizard’s Thicket to get an idea of cooking for volume. Eventually, I applied for the job at Oliver Gospel.
How did you get involved at Oliver Gospel?
Geno: I used to manage a medical equipment company in four different states. It kept me on the road... I basically lived in and out of a hotel room. It was exciting initially, but living that way wears off quickly. I had a friend who was the former Food Service Manager here at Oliver Gospel. He invited me to come check it out.
He said, “it’s probably more than what you think we do. If you like it, we can get you hired and you can climb up the ladder.” He introduced me to Oliver Gospel. I went through the interview process, and the rest is history.
Penny: I saw an ad on their website. I had been a volunteer and donor. I was raised to give back. They put an ad out for food service at the women’s shelter... I started out here as an assistant and worked my way up to doing this full-time.
What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?
Geno: I supervise and manage the kitchen staff at the Men’s Center and Toby’s Place. With that comes scheduling, interviewing, hiring, budgeting, handling all food donations that come from other places like other ministries, churches, restaurants, schools, grocery stores. It also entails networking. I reach out and meet people and I explain to them the benefit of donating to us.
Penny: I’m responsible for all inventory. I do our menu planning. I do all of the shopping and meal prep. I plan the menus two weeks at a time, and that’s what I shop with. I have very limited storage space. I do a lot of farm-to-table when the vegetables and the fruits are in season. I go to the farmer's market.
My responsibility is to make sure that every meal that is planned and cooked meets the requirement and to nurture the needs of our residents and their children. We have so many babies and their vitamins and requirements are a little bit different from their moms, so I try to keep that in mind when I plan a meal.
How many meals a day are you planning and prepping for?
Total: 250 meals per day
Total: 80 meals per day
What kind of meals do you make?
Geno: We have a four-cycle menu that we try to stick to, kind of like a school cafeteria. It’s a blueprint or outline to go by, but it’s subject to change. There’s a lot of dynamics involved. If we get a large donation from somewhere, we try to implement that quickly. I could have baked chicken, rice, vegetables, and gravy planned and then get a call from someone who has 300 pork chops available, and my plan would change immediately.
Penny: We recently served a seafood plate. We baked and seasoned flounder. I made lemon cream dill sauce with some popcorn shrimp on the side, plus grilled vegetables from the garden. We try to always have a veggie, like steamed cauliflower or broccoli. We have lasagna with a tossed salad. If we do meatloaf, I do half beef, half turkey to keep it as lean as we possibly can. We’ll make rice, gravy, and baked potatoes to go along.
What are the requirements behind a healthy meal?
Geno: I’m big on the integrity of the food. I want it to be as hot as possible and at it's peak taste. Noodles, for example: if you cook them at 1 pm for spaghetti and you’re not serving them until 5 pm, they’re not going to be good. I like my guys to prepare the food as close to serving time as possible.
Penny: You have to have a source of protein. You have to have a starch, and you have to have a vegetable. I lean toward the leaner the better like a lean fish. When we have hamburgers, they’re turkey burgers. We make our own chicken strips. Any vegetable is leafy green. We eat a lot of broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus. They get zucchini and squash from the garden. I keep it as fresh and as seasonal as we can.
What is your favorite thing to cook?
Geno: Barbecue ribs are a fan favorite. Fried chicken, pork chops, cheeseburgers and fries, grilled chicken tenderloin with a homemade mushroom gravy.
Penny: We do a baked salmon dish that is popular. It’s always served with roasted asparagus, and then we have roasted rosemary potatoes on the side.
What do you want residents or guests to experience when they have your cooking?
Geno: Good food, for sure. Oliver Gospel, and the food we serve, is known in the community as some the best in the city. Amongst the homeless community, they all talk and share what we’re having each day. Another thing I want people to get out of it is fellowship. Food is an opportunity to connect, so good food is what we do to bring people to connect, then relationships form, and they’re able to get that fellowship. Our goal is to create an atmosphere of love through food.
Penny: I want them to understand and to know that it is prepared with as much love as you possibly can. Like your mom, or your grandmother. A lot of these ladies were raised by their grandparents, so that’s what I want them to understand. I want it to be as beneficial nutrient-wise as it possibly can. I want them to sit down and enjoy, and at the end of the meal, know that they’re full and it was good. They remember these meals and they all have their favorites.
I’ve had residents that have never had a piece of fish, unless it was deep fried. Or they didn’t know what an asparagus was, or a brussel sprout.
Why do you cook for Oliver Gospel?
Geno: We feed physically with food, but the opportunity that we get to feed spiritually is what does it for me. It’s rewarding that God allows me to be a part of the process of transformation with the people that he sends us. I build relationships with a lot of the guys in the program that have nothing to do with food. It’s feeding spiritually and forming a spiritual connection.
I’ve lived a lot of what they’re going through, being formerly addicted to drugs and alcohol myself and making poor choices that led to incarceration, and a lot of these guys have been through that. It’s bigger than just managing and cooking food. It’s an opportunity for me to really be a part of the process that plants a seed in these guys, or waters a seed that somebody else plants.
Penny: We’re all here because this is our purpose. I was drawn here. This is it. It’s where I’m supposed to be. It’s why we do what we do. Because He called us here.
Anything else you would like to add?
Geno: 75% of my employed staff went through the program and graduated. It’s important to me, and us as a ministry, to practice what we preach by believing in people who come through our program. Giving them an opportunity to carry out what they’ve learned. They go through healing and transformation while they’re here, and to let them exude that in daily employment, it’s good for their life. I think it also gives current residents hope. A lot of the work assignments guys in the program have are kitchen-oriented and food service-oriented. It instills responsibility in them.
Penny: Thank you for all of your donations. We’d love for you to come and have lunch with us sometime.
Your donation to Oliver Gospel provides life-changing meals that inspire our guests every day. Thank you for supporting Geno, Penny, and our incredible food staff!