Twin Cities family serves gratitude this Thanksgiving

A survival of a severe illness inspired the family to give back during the holiday season.

This Thanksgiving a Twin Cities family is giving back the way they know best – through gourmet food – and will hand out holiday meals to more than 3,000 families in need.

Taher, Inc. food service company feeds schools, businesses and seniors across the nation. In addition, the family owns Forepaugh’s restaurant in Saint Paul and Timber Lodge steakhouses.

The giving comes after a family tragedy over the holidays transformed their definition of gratitude.

“We are more humble, this experience of being able to give is something we might now have ever done but inspired because of that event, will never end,” said Shawn Taher, Taher Inc.’s Vice President of Operations.

Taher’s stepmom, Janis Houston, was in a coma for 55 days through Thanksgiving in 2012. She contracted a rare illness while on an African safari with her husband and company owner, Bruce Taher. Houston was diagnosed with East African Sleeping Sickness, a rare illness that occurred after she was bitten by a fly that carried a parasite.

Doctors only see a few cases in the United States each year, and had a special serum flown in to save Houston’s life. The medicine however sent her body into septic shock, and doctors at Abbott Northwestern Hospital were forced to amputate her hands and feet to save her life.

“So in that experience, we met a lot of families in that waiting room that really had nothing,” said Shawn Taher. “Food has always been a great place to start relationships and build hope together so we started this really inspired by the families and the nurses we met there in the hospital.”

The Taher family first began by catering Thanksgiving meals to the doctors, nurses, patients and families in the Abbott Northwestern ICU. They expanded their reach even further by using the company’s large catering facilities to create Thanksgiving meal kits, with every serving and fixing made from scratch. The meals include turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberries, dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie. They are made with large portions and meant to be taken home and warmed.

Shawn Taher then tasked his employees with giving the food away themselves, finding families they know in need.

Taher Corporate Chef Matthew Quist said he’s giving a meal to the family matched to him through the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

“There’s 10 kids in the family and two moms, and they just had their stove go out,” he said. “I see the struggle they go through it really hits home with me once you know the people you are actually feeding. It’s probably the greatest gift I think I can give.”

Chef Christopher Murray said he’s giving to a family of 13 with all adopted special needs children.

“That’s really what it is about. You get goose bumps when you hand them that food,” said Murray.

This year a record amount of meals will also go to organizations helping people in poverty, like Urban Ventures in South Minneapolis.

CEO Timothy Clark came to thank Taher employees personally for making those meals, which will benefit about 1,000 of Urban Ventures’ clients.

“The hard work you are doing puts smiles on people’s faces and provides dignity to families on Thanksgiving Day,” he told Taher employees. “So, thank you.”

The secret ingredient in Taher meals is now widely shared, a “thank-you” more than three thousand times over.

“I get the chills,” said Shawn Taher. “One of the chefs mentioned to me that I’m a hard boss, but this time of year is so happy for me.”

The family plans to keep catering for the Abbott Northwestern ICU ward each Thanksgiving as well as expand their Thanksgiving meal kits every year.