Underground Food Collective.
The fire that set an apartment building and well-respected, downtown Madison restaurant ablaze on Thursday, June 30th may be old news to many, but to the founders and employees of Underground Kitchen, there is still much to be uncovered. Although the Kitchen is definitively closed until further notice, many questions remain about the company’s future.
Perhaps fortunate, the innovative Underground Kitchen was merely one aspect of the Underground Food Collective, a catering and meat processing company located on East Main Street. The company was flourishing before the addition of its restaurant, and there is no doubt in my mind that this small bump in the road will not deter them.
“8 months in is a really terrible time to lose a restaurant,” Jonny Hunter responded matter-of-factly towards the end of a meeting where we discussed the Underground Food Collective and its ties to F.H. King. I had waited as long as possible to bring up the emotional and very recent event that forced UFC to reconfigure and reorganize their business strategy as well as their staff, but much like there is no good time to lose a restaurant, there is no ideal time to talk about it.
“I finally liked [the restaurant],” Hunter continued. After 8 months of hard work and vision, the Underground Kitchen was beginning to realize its full potential and Hunter was not only satisfied with the direction the restaurant was headed, he was also finally finding it manageable. Beginning a restaurant is no small endeavor, and doing it for a second time is certainly not any easier. Yet Hunter’s response told me that despite the business’s dumb luck, they were neither wallowing in their misfortune nor seeking pity.
There is something about UFC’s approach to food that is very reassuring in this time of trouble, something that tells me they have nothing to be concerned about. The community who enjoyed and embraced the young restaurant’s fluctuating menu also felt connected to it, and there are a lot of people banding together to support UFC in whatever new direction they take. Just one short glance at their facebook page showed me that this restaurant was about more than food: it was about cultivating and sharing new ideas, it was about educating the greater community and in the end, it was about feeding people who love food.
When I asked Hunter about his philosophy on the connection between food and community, his response was simple, “I work for free a lot.” He explained that those who work at UFC are very obviously skilled in the kitchen, but rather than take these talents for granted, they prefer to share them. UFC has catered several events for both F.H.King and the UW chapter of Slow Food, including F.H.King’s last spring and fall kick-off potlucks at the garden. By already possessing the equipment and the know-how, UFC is eager to use what they have for groups they believe in and events they support.
UFC is well-connected to community organization and thoughtful to their projects. Along with Bradbury’s, UFC was the only other business to join the bike compost program in this formative year. Hunter told me that he saw a flyer for Full Cycle Freight and was instantly excited to join. F.H. King receives all the compost it can fit in their bike trailer, about half of what UFC produces each week.
Hunter applauds the work F.H. King does and the progress it has made since he was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin seven years ago. During his early years in Madison, he became involved with the organization, spending hours in the garden and becoming a part of the community that formed there. Although never directly stated, much of the business’s fresh perspective on collective food was likely inspired by the cooks’ time in F.H. King. Several past directors have worked at UFC and our visions for food are one in the same: be good to the land and to those who appreciate the food it reaps.
UFC puts a lot of effort into supporting community events, and the community UFC developed is quickly trying to return the favor. Underground Food Collective may not be unfazed and it may not be an easy path ahead, but they are certainly well-supported, moving forward with enthusiasm and grace.