Meals With A Mission

When the going gets tough, the tough go dining. In Macon, an innovative model of “social entrepreneurship” offers the chance to do good by eating well. Looking to create jobs by matching local businesses’ needs with trained workers, Goodwill Industries polled community leaders about the biggest gaps. The result: The organization’s first-ever culinary school, conference center space and fine-dining restaurant, opened in 2007 in a former Sam’s Club.

Named for Goodwill’s founder, Methodist pastor Edgar Helms, the bistro employs and trains culinary students for all aspects of restaurant employment – from waiting tables to cooking, catering and pastry-making. Anyone can enroll; scholarships help eligible students who can’t afford to pay full tuition.

“Everyone wondered why we didn’t open a sandwich shop,” says Goodwill Foundation Executive Director Meredith Vasquez. “But we wanted our students to dream big.”

In fact, Edgar’s ambitious “cigars and scotch” nights, tapas menu and special-occasion dinners are perhaps more familiar to Atlanta restaurant-goers than Maconites.

Still, I wondered: Could you “dine” in a former big-box store without feeling you were sitting in the frozen food section? Would the dishes be the bland, unremarkable fare wheeled out at business conferences everywhere? Edgar’s mission alone makes it a worthwhile experiment – but I hoped for more.

Fortunately, sometimes even high expectations are exceeded.

Though the décor appears handmade and inexpensive, it’s a clever use of the concrete-floored space, with contemporary fabrics and light fixtures lending an urban-loft feel. The bar area has interesting framed photos and comfortable seating – and even a pleasant patio.

Our sweet, shy young waitress confessed it was her first full day at work, winning us over with her “I don’t know, but I’ll ask” willingness to help. Around us, Maconites sat laughing, drinking and talking as big tables celebrated birthdays and family gatherings. Edgar’s, it appears, has won the embrace of its hometown.

Soon one diner was pulled from his chair to help a chef make crepes Suzette, tableside on a rolling cooktop, as his friends cheered him on. You don’t expect social entrepreneurship to be convivial, but Edgar’s is.

The menu mixes familiar and up-tempo bistro classics, with lunches offering paninis, lobster bisque, asparagus soup, salads and pastas in addition to a few entrées. At dinner, it’s more consciously Continental, but never too serious: New York strip with red wine demi; Florida prawns in risotto; pork tenderloin with fennel gratin and eggplant. The highest-priced dinner entrée is $24, with such sides as pea tendrils and Gruyere cheese potato croquettes.

Even the drink list is amusing, with the “Miami Beach” (scotch, dry vermouth and grapefruit juice) a good bet for snowbirds staying over before hitting I-75 again the next day.

Our late lunches were so tasty we just kept ordering more, sopping and topping the crusty bread with its trio of accompaniments (butter, herbed olive oil, candied red onions). We opted for asparagus soup with crème fraiche and pancetta and a cup of French onion soup to start. Next, the grill-branded pulled pork panini, with mustard sauce and fries. Then, a tangled heap of tender angel hair pasta with country ham, sautéed red pepper and blue crab.

For dessert, chocolate pot is a dense, caffeinated dish of dark chocolate, topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberry – a perfect excuse to linger a bit longer, with coffee.

If I lived here, I’d bring friends, too.

Vasquez says Edgar’s has been such a success that the nonprofit is planning to open another restaurant and cooking school in Augusta. And, she adds, the culinary school will be part of the curriculum when Goodwill opens its first college, to be called Helms College, in Macon.

“It’s guilt-free dining,” she says. “Thirty great menu items for one great cause.”

Edgar’s Bistro

5171 Eisenhower Parkway



Categories: Art of the Meal