When Caitlin Cullen opened Tandem restaurant in 2016, she never set herself the goal of achieving financial gain.

Instead, an English teacher-turned-chef saw an opportunity to teach aspiring chefs culinary tricks, turning a seedy tavern into a gathering place for Milwaukee’s Lindsay Heights.

Running a restaurant with kitchen staff was not always easy. Running a restaurant in an area facing poverty, high unemployment and a host of other social problems has made it even more difficult. In the beginning, guests were sometimes faced with long waits, raw food, and several employees who “shouted and left the restaurant at a very opportune time.” she once shared with OnMilwaukee.

Over the years, Cullen’s vision began to materialize. Tandem has built a reputation for delicious menus and staff opportunities. During her time at the social enterprise, she has trained more than 150 workers, including those who have previously been incarcerated or have never worked before. According to her, many of her employees have made careers in the kitchen.

But just as Milwaukee prepared to enter the global stage as host of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, the pandemic ground to a halt and everything came to an abrupt halt.

“I think the Obamas will dine with us,” Cullen said. Technically. “And it happened, and I thought, ‘Finally, we’re going out of business.’

Pandemic reversal

Like many restaurateurs, forced shut your doors due to government orders, Cullen was ready to surrender. She began to lay off staff and reduce her menu to the bare necessities. It still wasn’t enough. When she was about to close the Tandem’s doors, she said she couldn’t imagine throwing away so much unused food. So when the canteens in the city went bankrupt, Cullen decided to give away food for free.

She created a Facebook post to let the community know about free meals. By the next morning, it had been shared thousands of times.

“All those dinners were over in two hours,” Cullen recalled. “And we did it again the next day.”

Cullen said the restaurant had its busiest day since posting on Facebook in nearly five years of operation, but the restaurant’s dwindling staff was unprepared to handle the influx of paid orders and serve neighbors in need of food aid.

“I thought we should choose one or the other,” she added. “And I think we should choose to help our neighbors. And we’ve been doing this for a year and a half.”

About half a dozen restaurants came to the aid of Cullen’s cause, but that’s when her boyfriend approached her. Central cuisine of the world is a global food aid organization led by celebrity chef Jose Andres — that the floodgates were open.

By winter, The Tandem was serving over 800 meals a day and launched a food delivery program funded in part by a $350,000 grant from the city’s CARES Act. In total, The Tandem raised over a million dollars to feed residents struggling with the pandemic.

In 2021, exhausted and overwhelmed by work and personal issues, Cullen hung up her apron after serving over 115,000 meals. She is gave the restaurant another start-up entrepreneur.

Tandem staff in December 2020. Caitlin Cullen bottom right. (Photo via

New mission

This spring, Cullen returned to her philanthropic and culinary roots when she joined Community food related center as the organization’s food director. Kinship Community Food Center, formerly Riverwest Food Pantry, offers a fresh food market, communal dining, crisis mentoring, and community education. The goal, Cullen said, is not just to feed families struggling with food insecurity, but to help residents move out of poverty altogether.

The center, located in St. Casimir’s Church at 924 E. Clarke St., is definitely different from your typical run-of-the-mill food pantry. On a recent summer afternoon, the center is filled with guests playing to music and socializing with neighbors over snacks and communal meals.

“No queue,” Cullen said as she strolled through the market and greeted guests like old friends. “We have music playing, we have coffee, and if you come on a Tuesday night, we have a lunch bar with healthy food. We really created this welcoming, inviting atmosphere. And then they don’t look at you like the call of cattle when you run through the queue. ”

Cullen hopes to turn the Kinship Community Food Center into a real community center and do her part to break the cycle of poverty in Milwaukee.

“The clichés about food and community are so numerous because they are true,” Cullen wrote in her bio for the company. “When we can share even the humblest of meals, strangers become friends and the community becomes family.”

Cullen’s journey was recounted in new short documentary In Tandem by Emmy-nominated 1 Girl Revolution + Behold. The film premiered this spring.

Watch’s full interview with Cullen here:

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