Aluminaries: Meal Ticket

Paul Fields ’79 uses his food-business savvy to nurture a nonprofit that feeds thousands.    by Erika Spaet ’09

Paul Fields was hungry. After graduating from IC, the Scarsdale, New York, native found himself in the dog-eat-dog world of business. He was enormously successful at an early age, but he craved something that traditional business just didn’t have on the menu: the chance to make a difference.

“I just believe that it’s important to give back,” he says, “and it shouldn’t always be all about the money.” 

Paul began serving on the board of directors for D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), a Washington nonprofit that recycles good food that would otherwise be thrown away by supermarkets, restaurants, and other big businesses and serves meals to the poor of the nation’s capital city. Recognizing Paul’s philanthropic philosophy, commitment to the common good, and business acumen, the other members of the board asked him to be their chair just a year after he’d first joined. 

Thanks to its trained cooking staff, generous donations of food and money, dedicated volunteers, and savvy leaders like Paul, DCCK reclaims more than one ton of food each day; last year it served two million meals.

But it’s much more than a soup kitchen. The 4,000 meals prepared daily are distributed to more than 100 partner organizations all over the city, including emergency shelters and after-school programs. Those organizations are then bound in a promise to DCCK. They must use the money they would otherwise have allocated for food on improving their programming — meaning that two ledger columns are filled in with black ink. “The nonprofit industry is still business,” Paul says, pragmatically. “It’s got to be run like a business.”

Paul thinks of the D.C. Central Kitchen as an organization that’s “more about empowering people to empower themselves than it is about feeding hungry people.” In that spirit, DCCK also offers a three-month program to train the unemployed to work in the restaurant business. The program includes classes in sanitation, cooking, and management. Graduates are guided into food service jobs by the well-connected DCCK team — jobs that would have been out of their reach without the training.

The program, which graduated its 69th class in January, has a stunning 100 percent job placement rate. “The more people who can be trained,” Paul says, “the fewer people who are going to be on the street.”

And he’s not using words idly. “There are plenty of people [in our programs] who have been in prison,” he points out, “people who might be on the streets or dead if they hadn’t heard about D.C. Central Kitchen. That’s very exciting. You really feel like this place makes a difference in the world.”

As board chair, Paul is in charge of making sure that the organization is operating under good business practices and carrying out its mission of using food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build community.

Now a new DCCK program is making a broader difference beyond the capital. The Campus Kitchens Project does basically the same thing as DCCK on 10 college campuses across the country, taking food donations from the colleges themselves. And it does more than just train people looking for work; it performs triple duty by making college students project leaders and teaching them the skills necessary for nonprofit management. As an added bonus, this makes for great town-gown relationships.

It’s Paul’s hope that students will be inspired to look beyond commercial businesses when looking for jobs. “We want to make working for a nonprofit viable,” he says.

DCCK chief executive officer Michael Curtin, the former owner of Broad Street Grill in Falls Church, Virginia, says these two programs are so successful because they’re run just like any other business would be. “How do you go from running restaurants and bars to running a nonprofit?” he asks, and answers: “It’s basically the same thing.” 

And Paul might know best about that. He’s been running businesses for more than a decade. After graduating from IC, Paul sold airplanes for an aircraft charter company before deciding to get his master’s degree at American University in real estate and urban development, an interest he says he got from his father. “I grew up talking real estate all the time,” he says.

Paul started doing financing and brokerage in the D.C. real estate market. This spurred him to set up his own finance leasing business in 1998. He was asked to do a lease for a D.C. restaurant, but the restaurant owner told him there was a catch: Paul would get his full commission for the lease only if the restaurant opened and operated successfully for at least two years. “That’s when I got into restaurants,” Paul says. He became invested in the process and discovered a niche for himself — managing leases for restaurants. Now Paul runs his own Restaurant Development Services, which provides contract financing and operations consulting for burgeoning restaurants, such as the Palena Café and Bebo Trattoria, two of’s “Top 100 D.C. Restaurants.”

Along the way, Paul married his wife, Karen, and they had two children. But when Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen and the Campus Kitchens Project, asked Paul to get involved in the organization, he wasn’t too busy to say yes. “I’ve always been involved in activities where I thought I was doing a good thing,” says Paul. “As early as 16 years old I was involved in a group that went to an orphanage to hang out with the kids every Sunday.” And when he came to IC, Paul was a President’s Host and was instrumental in starting the business school’s peer advisory group.

“Paul was always a very active individual,” says Raquib Zaman, IC’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Finance and International Business, with whom Paul has remained close since his student days. “He was interested in helping others. And I expect him to continue doing this in the future.”

That might mean pursuing a Campus Kitchen at IC. “I think it would make for a great kitchen,” says Paul. “Young people these days are more and more involved in nonprofit work and volunteerism, and I’ve heard that Tompkins County has a lot of hunger.”

And why does Paul Fields care about eradicating hunger so much? Yes, he has made feeding people his life’s vocation, both in the profit and nonprofit sectors, but what makes him so hungry to help? “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just that it’s always been part of who I am.”