Story by Mary Martin. Photos courtesy of The Dinner Bell.
Ten years ago Justin and Diane Fourton officially opened Pecan Lodge, a small catering business with a love for simple, southern food. The 2008 recession had upended their individual careers in finance and corporate consulting, and a side hustle that included a smoker driven to office buildings for the lunch rush was gaining popularity, but were they ready for a restaurant? “We thought our exit strategy for retirement would be a catering company—it would give us something to do when we’re old,” shares Diane. “But we had our severance packages, so we just decided to jump off the cliff and just give it three months. But we were clueless. Justin and I just pulled out my grandmother’s cookbook and hitched up our little smoker. So, there I was, nursing a six month old baby in the back seat of the car while Justin would cruise around office parks asking if we could feed their employees BBQ.” That on-the-road smoker soon led them to the first professional kitchen space at the new Dallas Farmer’s Market building for Pecan Lodge. The shift from catering to restaurant happened with a spurt of early media exposure—a visit from Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and a spot on D Magazine’s list of top new restaurants—and well-earned acclaim for the smoked brisket and southern sides Dallas has come to love.
Now ten years later, Justin and Diane face another economic crisis and another cliff. This time they are jumping with both feet into the world of nonprofit. Staring down the realities of COVID-19 and its crippling effect on the restaurant industry, there was initial talk of closing Pecan Lodge altogether. “We were thinking, ‘Ok – I guess this is it. We will take the food that we have at the restaurant and commissary, cook what we have, and distribute that into the community, and at least we can do some good,’” admits Diane. “It was very sobering and sad that night.” But the next morning Justin woke up with an idea. Maybe all of their resources and experience could not only feed people in need, but also feed people who are serving as healthcare professionals and first responders. And even though Pecan Lodge has the capability to feed thousands of people, that still wouldn’t scratch the surface of the need. They would need more restaurants to join the team.
Shortly after that idea, The Dinner Bell Foundation was born. With a passion for keeping independent restaurants running and community helpers fed, Justin and Diane created a model that takes boxed lunches from local restaurants and delivers them to the medical community, and those serving on the frontlines of COVID-19 response. The Dinner Bell Foundation purchases the meals from the restaurants for $8 or less per box, a cost that is designed to cover food and labor costs. “We worked from our own experience. How do we make this food stretch as far as possible? There is so much talent in these restaurants, certainly we do better than granola bars and bananas,” says Diane. “We are providing a high quality meal at a modest price point.” Justin and Diane started with their own restaurant. While paying staff from their personal savings, they worked to create a delicious meal at the $8 price point, then began helping other restaurants design the best boxed lunch possible.
And for restaurants who have stepped up to support the community, time and time again with donated food and gift certificates, the community is now able to support independent local restaurants and keep them afloat during stay-at-home orders. Anyone can place an order for a group of frontline workers on the Dinner Bell website, choosing meals from any of the six restaurants currently participating.
Helping to fund the initial Dinner Bell start-up is Dallas-based Match.com, who made a donation of $15,000, and set aside an additional $15,000 available as matching funds for the month of April. The excitement and support from the community is encouraging to Justin and Diane as they look toward the future of what Dinner Bell can do long-term. “We 100% invested in this,” Justin says. “We realize that we can use this to support Dallas through all kinds of things—tornadoes or floods or locusts—we can quickly mobilize with this platform. Immediately we will have a network of restaurants ready to feed people.” He hopes that as other issues arise, Dallas will know where to turn for front-line support, from families in crisis to larger state-wide emergencies.
When Diane looks back on her life with Justin, their foray into nonprofit came at an unexpected time. “You can make a difference by using whatever resources you have at your disposal,” says Diane. “We are very fortunate to have a catering kitchen and commissary, providing us with enough extra capacity to prepare thousands of meals per day. With proper funding and support, we can use these resources to help other independent restaurants and feed so many deserving people in our community that are working hard to keep us safe.”
If you’d like to support The Dinner Bell Foundation by making a donation, or by ordering meals for a group of healthcare workers or first responders, visit dinnerbellfoundation.org.
If this story has inspired you to support the North Texas nonprofit community, visit our Support Nonprofits During COVID-19 page to learn how you can get involved!