McKinney restaurateur mobilizes aid for local farms and others financially impacted by pandemic

Rick Wells of Harvest Seasonal Kitchen and Rick’s Chophouse helped set up One Heart McKinney and a Farm Crisis Fund.

McKinney restaurateur Rick Wells and farmer Megan Neubauer, who work together on the Seed Project Foundation, helped transform One Heart McKinney from idea to reality. This photo was taken in more carefree days, during a 2019 farm tour that included Neubauer’s Pure Land Farm.(Christie Connell / Christie Connell)

The call went out early and fast.

While most of us were just awakening to the possible impact of the coronavirus, McKinney Mayor George Fuller was shifting into warp drive. His 19-year-old daughter, Layla, tested positive for COVID-19 in March.

“He saw firsthand what was coming,” says McKinney restaurateur Rick Wells, one of the first people Fuller wanted on an action team to come up with a response and recovery plan.

So Fuller and City Manager Paul Grimes gathered up a brain trust, “people who could talk about recovery as the bombs were still starting to drop,” Wells says. From across the spectrum ― business leaders to police and fire officials ― the group sweated over how the pandemic was going to upend lives in McKinney. The thinking was, Wells says, “If we don’t talk now, we’ll be caught flat-footed.”

Thus began the push to create One Heart McKinney, a one-stop resource website for people needing help with food, housing, health care, jobs and more, funded by a partnership that includes the city, Wells’ Seed Project Foundation and Independent Financial.

Wells was at the center of the effort. The self-effacing leader in North Texas’ farm-to-table restaurant community, who co-owns Harvest Seasonal Kitchen and Rick’s Chophouse, emphasizes that One Heart McKinney is a collaborative project.

True enough, Fuller declares, but “if it wasn’t for Rick and Megan, this may well have been [just] a great idea that was talked about. … They absolutely ensured that it was great idea that got executed.”

Megan is Megan Neubauer, who works Pure Land Farm in McKinney with father Jack Neubauer and is the executive director of the Seed Project Foundation. The farm has been the site of four Outstanding in the Field events as well as fundraising dinners and tours.

In 2017, Pure Land Farm in McKinney was the site of an Outstanding in the Field dining event celebrating local food producers. The farm, which belongs to Megan and father Jack Neubauer, hosted the event four times, along with several farm tours and dinners, for the close-knit, farm-to-table McKinney community. Restaurateur Rick Wells has been instrumental in bringing that community together.(Melinda Ortley / Melinda Ortley)

Neubauer developed the One Heart McKinney website and a campaign to raise $250,000 for the nonprofits on the website.

But One Heart McKinney was only one aspect of the pandemic’s impact on Wells.

Just months ago, Wells and Neubauer were basking in the recognition conferred by Laura Bush’s Texan by Nature conservation group. The first TxN 20 singled out some of Texas’ best, most sustainable companies, small and large.

Harvest Seasonal Kitchen garnered attention for its detailed and relentless sustainable practices, and the Seed Project Foundation is an extension of the restaurant. The foundation supports initiatives as wide-ranging as school and community gardens and a Farm Crisis Fund for emergency grants to local farmers.

But by mid-March, Wells’ restaurants were crashing.

The same team that created Harvest’s enviable environmental record was suddenly forced to pivot to a kind of triage: how to sustain staff in whatever ways it could as well as the many local farms that supplied the food.

“We created a COVID-19 team,” Wells says. “With the outstanding leadership team I have, I can do a lot.” That team includes Harvest executive chef Andrea Shackelford and general manager Toby Thomason.

It meant creating two-a-day family meal packages for staff laid off while keeping remaining staff as busy as possible. Fast-tracking a curbside takeout system based at Chophouse. Creating an employee relief fund. Developing a plan for reopening the Chophouse dining room on May 1.

All the good will Wells had cultivated over the years with customers, farmers, staff and others came back at light speed. “Customers were writing monster checks” for the employee fund, Wells says, and admits he cried ― bawled like a baby, actually ― at the generosity.

It is uncertain how farm-to-table celebrations like the 2017 Outstanding in the Field dinner at Pure Land Farm in McKinney will have to change post-COVID-19 pandemic.(Melinda Ortley / Melinda Ortley)

One of the hardest hit suppliers, Lucas-based Profound Microfarms, also got one of the first coronavirus grants from Seed Project Foundation’s Farm Crisis Fund, which stanched some of the pain.

“I immediately had to lay off my best friend and my father,” says owner Jeff Bednar, whose Lucas farm specializes in petite lettuces and other greens, the kind you’ll eat in a restaurant but probably wouldn’t buy at the grocery store.

Bednar was getting ready to uproot thousands of pounds of plants to compost them.

Not so fast, said Shackelford and Wells. Bednar says they insisted on taking the food and incorporating it into the family meal boxes. “We were going to waste that food,” he says, “and they turned it into salad for some of the people who needed it most in our industry.”

Such actions are emblematic of what Wells has done for years, giving of himself to nurture a vibrant farm-to-table network in and around McKinney, whether it involves bringing producers together, underwriting sustainable practices or raising disaster-support funds to buoy local farmers.

“Rick is really full of passion for things that matter to our community,” says Bednar, who has supported fundraising efforts with farm tours and more. “He knows the right people, and he knows how to share his passion. He gives credit to everyone else. But he’s doing it because it’s right to do for our community.”

Bednar, meanwhile, turned his Profound Foods wholesale distribution network, which funneled produce and more from 40 area farms to nearly 70 restaurants, into a retail operation that delivers farm-fresh food to homes across North Texas. “We had an online platform, and now we deliver to your door or a pick-up location.” The food hub aspect of his “new” business is doing well, and he has pledged to repay the crisis-fund grant money he received and then some.

Wells also had to think about the two campuses of Goddard School preschool and day care that he and wife Robbin Wells own. “We decided to keep it open for first responders’ child care,” he says. “It would have been easier to close it down.

“We planted all the gardens last week at both schools,” Wells adds.

“He has never said the word ‘no’ to any event or charitable request we’ve had,” says Fuller, who has known Wells for almost 30 years. “Who does that? He’s really that person. That engaged. That caring. And that determined.”

“I’ve literally told people in the past,” Bednar says, “when I grow up, I want to be Rick Wells.”

For more information, visit oneheartmckinney.com.

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