The Evanston Community Kitchen (ECK) provided a meal delivery service and expanded to include catering services and food preparation for retail sale. Founding members often lectured nationwide on the establishment of community kitchens providing centralized meal delivery services.
The Evanston Community Kitchen (ECK) had its roots in the food conservation movement of World War I. At that time of food rationing, high priority was placed on improving efficiency and efficacy in food production. To this end in the summer of 1918, the Evanston Woman’s Club Community Kitchen Committee (CKC), composed of Elizabeth Odell, Helen Palmer Dawes and Nellie Kingsley, organized the preserving and canning of 7,000 jars of fruits and vegetables in the club’s basement kitchen. This food was distributed to various charitable institutions and sold for profit thus enabling the committee to turn a $250.00 profit on the operation (and return the $500.00 club allocation). Then in October 1918, the influenza epidemic reached northern Illinois and the club kitchen was reorganized as an “emergency kitchen.” For two weeks the kitchen prepared an average of 200 meals per day for families unable to provide for themselves due to the flu crisis.
Struck by the success of these two operations, the CKC sought out other productive uses for the kitchen. The idea of a community kitchen was in currency at the time and community kitchens were in place in parts of Europe and the east coast. The Woman’s Club invited Charlotte Perkins Gilman to speak to the club on “The Waste of Women’s Labor.” Subsequently in 1919, the CKC traveled to the east coast to visit cooked food service kitchens there. Encouraged by what they observed on their fact-finding trip and buoyed by the enthusiasm of their peers, the CKC began to organize the Evanston Community Kitchen. Although the kitchen’s roots were in philanthropy and charity, the CKC intended the Evanston Community Kitchen to operate for profit. Its target audience was families not so rich that they could afford multiple servants but not so poor that they couldn’t undertake the expense of hiring in food.
Elizabeth Odell, who frequently traveled to speak on the concept of a community kitchen, offered multiple rationales for a shared community kitchen. One was to solve the problem of scarce domestic help (otherwise known as the “servant problem”). Another was to solidify the bonds of family life that were perceived to be threatened by the overworked housewife, who, unable to cope with the overwhelming domestic and child rearing load was resorting to taking dinner outside the family home at restaurants. The community kitchen would therefore “…[prevent] the disintegration of the home and the annihilation of the family table.”  Thus for the early 20th century woman, the community kitchen model promised both a release from the confines of domestic drudgery while at the same time exulting the sanctity of the family home as the centerpiece of life. The traditional homemaker could justify using the labor saving service in the name of family sanctity while the progressive woman reformer could rejoice in the liberation from household enslavement.
The Woman’s Club was not allowed under its charter to operate a business for profit so the ECK was a separate entity, incorporated in November 1919. (Start-up capital of $1000 was raised) The members of the CKC, Dawes, Odell and Kingsley, were the proprietors. Initially, they rented the club kitchen for a nominal fee and set about hiring cooks and laborers to staff the kitchen. One of the central keys to the operation was identifying a thermal container that could ensure the storage and delivery of hot food to the customer. Shortly after the ECK began, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the fledgling operation. As a result, the Aladdin Company contacted the EKC and began to develop a suitable thermal product. Much thought was given to the appearance of the containers as well as the efficacy of the units. Eventually, a glass lined metal insulated vacuum design was agreed upon. The product had several parts: a base, stackable serving dishes that could go directly from the container to the table and a covering container that would go over the entire operation. Participating families were required to buy their own containers – although they were returned each day to the ECK for washing and reuse. Aladdin subsequently developed related products that could be used for hot or cold food or beverage storage (the early forerunner of the thermos).
Meals were initially priced at 85 cents/meal and $1.00/Sunday meal and menus were published in local newspapers. In March 1920 the ECK leased space at 1519 Chicago Ave. from the Chicago Telephone Company. The space included a food shop in front and a kitchen with meal delivery capability in back. Subsequently, Odell purchased the entire operation. In 1925 ECK moved to 600 Davis Street where it remained until it closed its doors in 1951. Meal delivery service was discontinued sometime in the twenties and ECK operated as a retail food outlet thereafter.
The ECK was a model community kitchen that was emulated throughout the country. According to the Evanston News Index, (Jan. 1920), other cities opening community kitchens modeled on CK included Roland Park, Baltimore, Cleveland, Erie New York, and Akron Ohio. Large hotels throughout the country sent staff to inspect the CK to observe it’s functioning. Articles featuring CK were published in the Woman’s Home Companion, the Christian Science Monitor, Fort Dearborn magazine and the Chicago Tribune. In fact, a story on the opening of the CK was run on the front page of the Chicago Tribune (July 1, 1919). In addition, Elizabeth Odell lectured nationwide regarding the operation of a community kitchen (she spoke to various women’s clubs as well as Chautauqua audiences). While the meal delivery service of ECK lasted only a few years, the publicity surrounding the undertaking of an innovative and progressive community kitchen was widespread and served to bring the Evanston community into the national spotlight.