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Here’s to a job well done: After many years at the helm, John Frankfurth and Gloria Joy step down from soup kitchen

John Frankfurth and Gloria Joy are stepping down from their leadership roles with the Bemidji Community Soup Kitchen. They have combined for 30 years of service to the organization. — Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Tonight is beef stroganoff. It’s Thursday, April 18. Outside the snow is falling despite the calendar’s proclamation that it’s officially spring. Inside, the smell of meat — pounds of it — is filling the basement of Bemidji United Methodist Church. A dozen people are in line for the meal and a dozen more sit on metal folding chairs at plastic tables scattered throughout the basement.

John Frankfurth is supervising, as one who has reached the end of a 12-year career does. His replacement as head cook of the Bemidji Community Soup Kitchen, Chris Kreiner, does most of the work now.

“It’s very often the poor and the low income who are the most generous,” Frankfurth said. “They smile more brightly because they don’t want you to go through what they’re going through.”

At 5 p.m. on the dot, the moment the meal is scheduled to be served, a prayer is said. God is thanked for “the friendships that are formed here, for a little less snow, and for each and every day.”

Then the line begins to move.

After a dozen years as kitchen manager and head cook here, Frankfurth is moving on — to two other jobs he already has. Soon, he and Gloria Joy, president of the soup kitchen for the past 18 years, will serve their last meal in the basement of the church, but the tradition will go on.

“It’s in good hands,” Frankfurth said.

“I will miss the people. I will miss the reactions when they get a good meal,” Frankfurth said. “I remember one gentleman, he was going through the line and he asked me ‘Is this OK? I haven’t eaten in a few days and this is my third time through the line.’ I said ‘Of course.’ We’re not going to turn anyone away.”

According to Frankfurth, those who gather each Monday and Tuesday night at Mount Zion Church in Nymore and Thursday night at United Methodist are going through any number of hardships. But the specifics aren’t asked. That’s not the purpose.

“We see single-income families, we see the broke-until-payday folks, we see senior citizens who are on tight budgets. The reality is when you show up here, you don’t sign anything, you don’t prove anything, you just go downstairs and eat dinner.”

No questions. No cost.

Joy sits at a table just inside the entrance of the church. In front of her is a ledger. With hash marks she denotes the ages — 0-5, 6-18, 19-60, 61–plus.

“I know almost everyone not by name, but by greetings and goodbyes,” she said as a man walks in the door. “Hi David. Hey, you’ve got nice hair. You didn’t just get a haircut, did you?

“I’ll miss all the questions, the planning, you might say — everything. This is a fabulous organization.”

Soup in name only The soup kitchen (which is a misleading name, according to Frankfurth: “The closest we get to soup is chili. This is like eating at your grandma’s house.”) operates on an annual budget of $10,000. Funds come from United Way of Bemidji Area, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, donations and, sometimes, the pockets of those who volunteer there. Frankfurth said it’s a fiscal challenge met with a competitive spirit — cooks try to see how cheaply they can make a meal. Not in preparation or quality, but in the “how little can I spend at the grocery store to make this happen?” sense.

Meat and produce are donated from Lueken’s Village Foods, Walmart and Target. And sometimes, a treat comes from the gleanings: last year there were dozens of pounds of prime rib roast, 17 spiral hams and 50 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes, all delivered unexpectedly from Frankfurth’s suppliers.

“We provide a very basic need; we provide food. The main thing is to provide a good, satisfying meal that’s going to keep our folks happy and healthy. There are folks in the community that would just assume that these organizations didn’t exist. What we are is a giant red flag that says ‘there’s a problem.’”

Before the 5 p.m. prayer, there was plenty of preparation to busy the staff, which, on this Thursday, included two Bemidji State students volunteering their time.

Starting at 3 p.m. the kitchen chaos began to pick up. It began slowly with huge slabs of meat being prepared for the oven, celery sticks pulled and chopped, onions sliced and smelling. Kreiner periodically looks at a cookbook splayed open on a stainless steel table, but most of his directions have already come from Frankfurth. Behind the pair, who are working a giant bowl of sour cream and flour, a freezer hummed.

“PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE LEFTOVERS” a sign taped to it read.

Even if you’re full, you won’t go home empty-handed as long as there’s something left to give.

Frankfurth said he doesn’t consider what he and Joy do three times a week as charity. Far from it.

“It’s not about feeling good about yourself. It’s doing what you’re supposed to do. Gloria and I look at this like it’s a job” Frankfurth said. “It’s basic human dignity.”

On one of her last Thursdays marking the pages in front of her with hash marks, Joy seemed content and reflective.

“It’s time,” she said.

But there’s still work to be done.

“Until we fill these (volunteer) positions I’ll haunt the place.”

Her replacement as president — George Stowe — has been chosen. But Joy isn’t sure what she’ll do with her newfound spare time. Perhaps that’s something she’ll figure out when it actually comes.

“If a person could come here three times a week and feed their family, they could maybe afford to pay for their heat, or a movie. Something fun,” she said. “I hope we’ve helped people along the way, and they’ve gotten friendships from being here.”

There have been thousands of men, women and children who have passed before her in the past 18 years. Joy admitted she doesn’t remember them all. “I’m not good with names,” she said.

But as a man went to leave after eating this past Thursday night, Joy’s memory was on full display.

“Bye Wayne.”

“It’s my birthday next month,” the man replied.

“You’re going to be 73, right?”

“You got it.”

Bemidji State University student volunteer Meggie Rentz and kitchen supervisor-in-training Chris Kreiner work the serving line.

Soup Kitchen volunteers Merry Lynn Wenans and Gloria Joy direct a patron to the kitchen at United Methodist Church.

Chris Kreiner, left gets advice for Soup Kitchen manager John Frankfurth how to make how to blend the sauce for beef stroganoff.

Direction to volunteer cooking staff is key as kitchen manager  John Frankfurth preps for serving more than 100 patrons.

Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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