By Joe Stumpe
Marc Mourning cooks with a wooden spoon the size of a canoe paddle. When you’re preparing food for a couple thousand people per day, everything gets bigger.
“This is like a workout,” Mourning, a volunteer at The Lord’s Diner, said while browning 50 pounds of pork in a device known as a tilt cooker last month. “It really is a lot of lifting and bending.”
Staying in shape isn’t the real reason Mourning shows up at the soup kitchen on North Broadway most weekdays by 7:30 a.m. First, it gives the retired construction supervisor something to do. Then, there are his fellow volunteers, and the people who line up at the place to eat. “I love the people – everybody” said Mourning, who’s known to many music fans as a drummer in rock bands going back to the 1960s.
The Lord’s Diner employs a 12-person paid staff, but much of the actual cooking is done by a small, dedicated cadre of volunteers, most of them retired.
In addition to Mourning, Craig Hull and Steve Curtis cook most days, joined by other volunteers who participate less frequently. They work under the supervision of food director Larry Hare and head cook David Horton.
“The volunteers take more pride in what they do than most (paid) kitchen staffs,” Horton said. “They are proud of their work. They like to see how it goes out” to diners.
Started 16 years ago by the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, The Lord’s Diner serves an evening meal 365 days a year “with dignity and respect to anyone who is hungry,” according to its mission statement. The running total on meals served so far: somewhere north of 4.9 million.
In recent years, it’s added a second dining location on south Hillside, along with three food trucks that park at the Evergreen, Hilltop and Atwater community centers (there’s another kitchen and dining facility in Pittsburg, part of the same diocese).
The operation is funded by a combination of donations and grants. In addition to cooking, several thousand people take turns volunteering to serve the food, wash dishes, mop floors and do anything else required to keep the effort going. About half the volunteers are Catholic.
All the food served in Wichita is prepared at the Broadway location kitchen, where Horton says the number of tilt skillets in use has expanded from one to seven and the number of “stack ovens” (used to bake food) from one to 12.
The recipe for the pork stew Mourning was working on included 200 pounds of pork, 30 large No. 10 cans of mixed vegetables and 40 gallons of pork gravy. It was prepared and served with like-size quantities of mashed potatoes and green beans.
In another corner of the kitchen, Shirley Cornett and Jackie Stewart dished up salads topped with salsa. Like Mourning, the two women
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initially came to The Lord’s Diner looking for something to do after retirement. Cornett said she now realizes the place fills a big need in the community. “Oh yeah, there are a lot of hungry people,” she said.
“At the end of the month, that’s when we get busiest,” Jan Habberly, the soup kitchen’s executive director, added. “People run out of money.” At those times, the number served may reach 3,500 a day, or about 1 percent of Wichita’s population.
Gwen Snyder, who used to work in records management for Koch Industries, now does some of the same on a volunteer basis for the soup kitchen, while also helping serve food at the Broadway location and Evergreen food truck.
“Oh, it’s fun, most of the time. I won’t lie – there are certainly issues (with some of the diners) – but it really is fulfilling. Most (diners) come up and say ‘Thank you, God bless you, I wouldn’t be eating without this. And the camaraderie is fun.”
One thing people frequently say about the soup kitchen’s food, usually with a bit of surprise in their voice, is how tasty it is.
The recipes have been put together over the years by Horton, who’s been with The Lord’s Diner for 13 years, and Hare, who’s worked there since its start.
Hare, in the food business since he was 14, was working at Tallgrass Country Club when he got recruited to the soup kitchen.
“I haven’t gotten my free golf back yet,” he joked, then admitted: “It felt good to be wanted.”
While much of the food he oversees is basic, he sometimes “gets these really wild ideas,” according to Habberly. For instance, one day in August The Lord’s Diner served teriyaki chicken wings – 18,000 of them.
Of cooking with volunteers, Hare said, “It might not be done perfectly, but it gets done. They want to do it. At a restaurant, (the workers) need a job.”
For Chris Frangenberg, retired from a varied career in real estate and other fields, volunteering at The Lord’s Diner brings back memories of working at La Fiesta and Tony C’s restaurants in the 1970s. “It’s kind of like I’m doing what I liked the best, 45 years later.”