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What It Takes: The path from nightclub owner to D.C. Central Kitchen founder

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Monday, May 31, 2010; 20

Robert Egger was managing a nightclub in the District in 1988 when he accepted an invitation to go out one day to feed the needy. A year later, he founded the D.C. Central Kitchen with a mission to feed men, women and children with surplus food from local restaurants while training disadvantaged adults to work in the culinary arts. In the 21 years since, D.C. Central Kitchen has produced countless meals and more than 800 men and women trained there -- including former drug addicts and convicts have been hired in local restaurants. Egger, 51, has racked up honors such as the James Beard Foundation's "Humanitarian of the Year" award, an Oprah Angel Network "Use Your Life" award and the Caring Institute's national "Caring Award" -- not bad for a boy who grew up aspiring to be a surfer and club owner. He lives in Mount Pleasant with his wife of 26 years, Claudia. They have a daughter Julia, 20.

WHY HE'S SUCCESSFUL

Egger hit the ground running with D.C. Central Kitchen by opening on Inauguration Day 1989, when President George H.W. Bush took office and the eyes of the world were on Washington. "I'm a showman. And I knew that if I could get the president of the United States to donate food, not only would it benefit my organization, it would benefit other nonprofits ... I knew there was no media outlet that could resist this story. And I knew that in telling this story, it would open the door ... all over the world. This is what I've always tried to do -- use this as a stage."

OBSTACLES HE OVERCAME

Initial resistance to his plan to use restaurant food to feed people and train the homeless. "There were a lot of people who didn't think you could do either, let alone both, so it was sort of a double dog dare that I was proposing."

FIRST JOB

"I was a Washington Post paperboy down in Quantico, I was probably in seventh grade. I made enough with my first pay check to buy my first record album, Led Zeppelin III, and I bought a 45 of the theme from "Love Story." . . . And I bought "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones, which is still one of the best songs ever written."

FIRST FULL-TIME JOB

"The Fish Market down in Old Town Alexandria. They had a one-eyed banjo player named Johnny Boar and they had a piano player who was Miss Vickie two nights of the week and Mr. Herb two nights a week ... but it was show biz. Then I went to work for the Childe Herald in Dupont Circle, which was the real big doorway for me because that's where Bruce Springsteen did his first big show. Within about six months, I was the bartender upstairs and started booking bands and was the manager of the upstairs."

A VALUABLE LESSON

After leaving the Childe Herald, he managed Charlie Byrd's jazz club, where he met such legends as Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme. "What was really amazing was that they rehearsed ... That spoke to a love of the craft ... I was an eager young student ... I remember [meeting] Carmen McRae. We sat around and chatted for hours. Pearl Bailey, all kinds of people who just let me in, so it was a really, really great school."

WHY HE CHANGED LANES

After 10 years, Egger was planning to open a large room that would feature live shows that he planned to broadcast when he proposed the idea that became D.C. Central Kitchen. "It was like, 'Dang, somebody must do this. This isn't my calling. I was born to run the greatest nightclub in the world, but I'll get it started.' Here we sit 21 years later."

SMARTEST MOVE

"Never wanting to be a founder. I started something, but I never wanted to be the dominant force of it. I didn't mind being a major part of the navigation, but very early on I moved beyond the day-to-day decision-making process."

WHAT INSPIRES HIM

Change. Egger's office is decorated with pictures of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Mahatma Gandhi. "People died to give us the freedom of opportunity to make the world a better place, to stand on the shoulders of giants and take it even further. Every generation's right is to change the rules and challenge the authority of prior generations."

WHAT'S NEXT

"I've been really working on a television show angle now ... We have all these chefs who travel around trying to find the best cheeseburger in America. Why don't we do the same thing with nonprofit programs like the Kitchen? There are tens of thousands of programs that are just as ingenious, just as imaginative, just as liberating, just as innovative, but no one sees them."

ADVICE TO THE ASPIRING

"Be respectful of convention, but impatient with the process."

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