Veteran chefs set to transform Franklin County courthouse cafeteria into social enterprise

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch
Veteran chefs Sangeeta Lakhani, pictured here, and Matthew Heaggans founded Service! in 2020 to feed laid-off service industry workers. The two and Letha Pugh of Bake Me Happy, who is co-founder and treasurer of the nonprofit, plan to transform the cafe in the Franklin County Courthouse into a social enterprise.

The Franklin County courts building may finally be getting a new cafeteria in the tower on the 16th floor—with a new mission to help support food service workers and entrepreneurs.

On Thursday, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners introduced a resolution for a $250,000 agreement with Service! Relief for Hospitality Workers, a nonprofit organization that formed to assist service industry workers impacted by the pandemic.

The cafeteria is projected to open in March, and will provide a living wage for workers, wraparound services and, at some point, an incubator space for small and emerging businesses.

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An additional resolution for the partnership is expected to be introduced in January.

“We are really excited to work on this project,” Service! Co-Founder and Executive Director Sangeeta Lakhani told the Dispatch. “Our industry is still struggling with the backlash of this incessant pandemic, and we are glad to know that it's being addressed by the county. Hopefully this behooves employees, as well as employers that don't have the time or energy to train new people right now.”

Lakhani also told the commissioners that she hopes other counties follow suit.

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“Although Service! is a nonprofit, this project is a great example of public and private partnerships within the realm of economic development” said Letha Pugh, co-founder and treasurer of Service!, and co-owner of Bake Me Happy in Merion Village and Dublin.

Letha Pugh, right, co-founded Bake Me Happy with Wendy Miller Pugh, and is now involved in launching a reimagined Franklin County Courthouse cafeteria.

Additional details on food options are forthcoming, but staff members of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners expressed interest in cheeseburgers, vegetarian options—and lots of coffee.

Once an owner of Ringside Café Downtown, Commissioner John O’Grady is especially excited about the new venture.

“I’m a recovering restaurateur,” he said. “It literally killed me and during the pandemic, we have been trying to do all we can to feature restaurants and restaurant workers, and the struggles that the industry has gone through.”

Service! President and Co-Founder Matthew Heaggans will have an active role in developing the kitchen.

“We do really appreciate all of the effort and time from the county,” said Heaggans, who co-owns Preston’s: A Burger Joint in North Market Downtown. “You have really pushed us across what we hope is becoming the finish line. We really appreciate the hard work and dedication.”