How this Richmond resident went from upscale dinner parties to serving meals to those in need
A $5 tomato that tasted “like shit” was the final straw for Micheal Sparks, convincing him to leave New York and move to Richmond, Virginia. Since arriving in 2009, he has devoted his time to helping chefs break into the industry and serving meals to the community, establishing the Underground Kitchen and UGK Community First.
It all started when Sparks and his partner, Richard, first moved to Richmond. They started throwing dinner parties to meet people. As the parties grew, Sparks and his partner got more involved with the local food scene and invited chefs to cook for the events. Soon, they discovered a major gap within the restaurant industry, and the Underground Kitchen was born.
“Our main mission is to promote chefs of color, women, and the LGBT community – taking them to the next level,” said Sparks, founder and CEO of Underground Kitchen.
The Underground Kitchen, founded in 2013, does “experiential dining” with themed events featuring up to seven-course meals cooked by emerging chefs. While the company became a success, cooking upscale meals all across the country, it wasn’t expecting the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to shut down operations for some time, losing millions in revenue in just two weeks and hitting pause on a TV deal.
Sparks wasn’t sure what he was going to do until a conversation with his mother: “She said, ‘You got to figure out a way to help people. You have the resources and people are going to be hurting during this period.’”
The next day he called his business partner, Kate Houck, the COO of Underground Kitchen, and they thought about what they do when friends or family are sick — they make them comfort food. “I said, ‘Let’s do that and give it to anybody and everybody in Richmond who wants it,’” Sparks recalled.
During the first week, they served 150 meals, all delivered by Houck and chefs who volunteered their services. They didn’t stop there, establishing the UGK Community First in April 2020. The nonprofit focuses on youth and the elderly, as well as food education and enrichment.
Through his work, Sparks noticed how many people can't cook and rely heavily on fast food. For instance, at a food drive last year, Sparks was surprised at how many people didn’t know what to do with potatoes.
“I thought I knew what poverty was,” Sparks said. “After this experience, I had to re-educate myself on the look of poverty from, you know, what it looked like in the 70s and the 80s, and what it looks like now in 2021. And it's been shocking for me.”
The UGK Community First has served more than 130,000 meals and is serving 1,000 seniors a meal of all organic and free-range foods for Thanksgiving this year.
While Sparks continues to serve the public with healthy, non-processed meals through UGK Community First, he reopened operations for the Underground Kitchen as the pandemic subsided and restrictions loosened.
With both organizations, Sparks feels “like Robin Hood in a lot of ways.” He does high-end, corporate dinners with the Underground Kitchen and then, so nothing goes to waste, serves those same beautiful meals to people in need with UGK Community First.
And to think, it all started because of a tomato.