On Death, the Restaurant World and Chef Matt Haley

As some of you may have already read, Chef Matt Haley, of the Haley Companies (one of the most successful small food service companies in America), died last night as a result of injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.  I never met the man, but I was shaken and moved by his death. 

Why? I interviewed him right before the motorcycle trip where he was injured, via a Skype chat from India to Chicago. 

This man didn't know me from Adam. I'd never been to one of his restaurants, never met him - I'd never even seen a video of him until after the interview. But he was one of the restaurant industry's biggest humanitarians - and his generosity was obvious from the moment we started talking. 

I was some random reporter who cold-emailed him. He responded personally, while on his vacation. He wanted to spread his message that business could be done in a generous, caring way - and he would talk to anyone who would listen.

He had a hard childhood and was something of a problem child, but turned his life around in his early thirties and became a huge success. He seemed astonished by this, even as we talked. "I taught four classes last week, did a TED talk, dinner with the governor, now i’m heading up to 18,000 feet for a three week motorcycle ride," he said. He'd met with the president. He'd helped thousands of people.  And he started out as a dishwasher.

His attitude was perfect. No bootstraps bullshit, no "value of hard work overcomes everything." He knew he'd had help, and he wanted to help others. "There are hundreds of people who were involved in my success before i made more than $8 an hour... No matter what I do, I have a respect for anyone who works with me at any level and i would do anything to stand for those people."

He did tons of charitable work, but it still seemed incredibly down to earth. A tiny example: He found out that many of his part time summer employees were teachers, trying to make ends meet in the off season. Those teachers were paying for books, supplies, pencils out of their own pockets to help their students. As soon as he found out, he called them together and told them that the company would be paying back every dime they spent on their kids, because he was touched by their generosity and sacrifice. 

After 40 minutes on the phone, he had already offered to come give a speech for Chicago Market, all for free - he refused to take a cent, and he thought what we were working on was incredible. 

There are so many incredible, generous people I've met in my restaurant travels. And so many of them (Like those who work for Un'86'd) want to help their fellow workers. It's a tight knit world, and despite the many challenges it faces (greed, high costs, un-caring owners, no insurance) it's been wonderful to be on the outside. It gives me the chance to "meet" people like this.

I'll give him the last word - his last words to me.

"I will never travel safe. I don’t do life safe, I do it cautious and smart. I live with integrity and honesty, I left nothing undone. I have no secrets. I’m very grateful and appreciative for everything. The great thing about what’s going on with our company is we have a platform, we have a voice. That’s a good thing, because we’re doing good things. It’s not about us or making money, its about what we’re doing to leverage our business to do good for others."

His company has requested that any donations go to his charity, the Global Delaware Fund