How we serve 150 free lunches for less than 20 cents each using homebrew equipment

I enjoy brewing beer, and have invested a lot into equipment.  But most of this equipment is useful for more than just beer.  We can use it to make food! Some friends and I do this with a group called Food not Bombs.  Basically, we just serve free lunches at our local college campus, no strings attached.  It’s a great way to connect with your community and make friends.

This post describes how I combined the two hobbies, and will hopefully inspire you to do the same. First we’ll take a look at how to use the homebrew equipment, and then we’ll look at a recipe for Chinese stew.  It’s easy to cook, cheap to make, and delicious!  If you’re cooking outdoors, you can smell the amazing spices hundreds of feet away.  You can serve between 120-150 people spending less than $30 for food!

And if you serve it, they will come:

The equipment

So what equipment do I have?  A pretty typical all-grain brewing set up.

  Here’s the stuff that we can also use for food:

  • (1) 10 gallon pot
  • (1) 5 gallon pot (this is leftover from when I first started brewing doing partial boils)
  • (1) 10 gallon water cooler
  • (1) mash tun stirrer (I use a wooden dowel bought from Lowes)
  • hops bag
  • Outdoor propane burner

The only tricky bit is the water cooler, which needs to be converted from a mash tun every time we serve.  I used PVC cement to attach half inch threads to the normal water cooler attachment.

This lets me swap between a hose barb for mashing and a water cooler attachment for serving cold water:

Buying all this equipment new would probably cost around $300-400, but your typical homebrewer will already have most of it anyways.  The only other things you need are a table and an awning.  Luckily, I was able to borrow those from a local church.  Here’s what our final setup looks like:

The recipe

I personally like serving Chinese stew, because it is cheap, delicious, and simple to make.  If you’re looking for some more ideas, check out Food not Bombs recipe page, or Ellen’s Kitchen.  (We’ve also tried making chili, but it is very easy to burn the tomato paste, so be careful!)

I purchase these ingredients from Costco for a total of $19.96 after taxes, but it should be pretty cheap anywhere:

  • (20 lbs) potatoes
  • (10 lbs) onion
  • (10 lbs) carrots
  • (2 lbs) broccoli
  • (2 gallons) rice (This actually comes in 50 lbs bags, and you get enough for many feedings)

You could also add some chopped beef if you wanted, but I prefer serving vegetarian food so that more people will be able to eat it.  Anyways, there’s so much flavor in this dish from the spices that adding meat doesn’t really make it taste any better.

The spices are:

  • 10 oz freshly chopped ginger
  • 25 bay leaves
  • 25 star anise
  • 3 Tbsp Schezuan pepper (Most peppers make your mouth taste hot, but this pepper makes your mouth taste cold!)
  • 6 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 cup minced garlic
  • 2 cups soy sauce
  • 4 Tbsp corn starch (this thickens the water, turning it from a soup into a sauce)

I personally prefer my Chinese food to have a lot of spice in it, but this version is pretty mild so that everyone can enjoy it.  We usually leave bottles of hot sauce and soy sauce available so that people can spice their bowls exactly how they want it.

All of these ingredients can be found at your local Asian food market.  Buying in bulk, it costs me about $20 for enough spices for about 10 meals.

Cooking Instructions

Cooking lunch for 150 really isn’t very different than cooking for only 5.  The only difference is that the pots are bigger, and things take a little more time.  Since we’re distributing food to the public, we also have to follow certain safety laws, like getting licenses and permits.  Due to these regulations, all our food must be cooked at the site where we plan to cook it.  So we make some preparations in the kitchen, then take everything to the site and start cooking.

In the kitchen:

  • Rinse all vegetables, then chop carrots, onion, and potato into 1/2 inch cubes.  This takes 2 people about an hour if you chop quickly.
  • Fill the 10 gallon pot with the chopped potatoes and 2 gallons of water
  • Fill the 5 gallon pot with the remainder of the vegetables (we don’t want to add all the vegetables to the large pot before bringing it to a boil to prevent burning)
  • Chop the ginger into thin strips.  Place ginger, bay leaves, star anise, and Schezuan pepper into the hop bag.  All of these spices make the water taste great, but you don’t want to accidentally bite into them!

Then we load everything into a truck and drive to the site.  We setup our kitchen, and begin cooking:

  • Bring the 10 gallon pot, with potatoes and water to a boil
  • Add the rest of the vegetables.  Bring to boil
  • Once boiling, add the hop bag and the rest of the spices.
  • Stir thoroughly to prevent burning on the bottom of the pot
  • The vegetables will be cooked in about 20 minutes, but the longer you leave them in there, the more flavors they’ll absorb.  I usually let the pot simmer for between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how much time I have until serving.
  • Once done, take the 8 gallon pot off the burner and allow it to cool as you cook the rice.  Add 4 gallons of water to the 2 gallons of rice.  (Because there’s room in between rice grains, this still manages to barely fit in the 5 gallon pot.)

Serving

It’s ready!  At last!  How will we eat it?!

Using paper plates and plastic spoons is by far the easiest, but it also adds to your expenses.  Altogether, disposable utensils cost about 20 cents per meal, making it half of your overall expenses for serving!

We usually serve each bowl with one big spoon full of rice, and two of vegetables.  Make sure to add plenty of sauce, since that’s where all the flavor is!  Obviously, the amount you put in each bowl determines how many people you’re going to feed.  We usually end up serving between 120-150 with this meal.

Finally, get a local singer to play the guitar while you serve!

  1. Glenn Phenicie’s avatar

    As a homebrewer and a plain old human being, thanks for doing this! It’s such a cool thing for you to do and your stew sounds absolutely delicious. Keep up the good work, brother.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Thanks!

      I’m hoping to add some spent grain bread to our offerings as soon as I can figure out how to make 100 loves in the oven!

      Reply

  2. Mulch’s avatar

    This is awesome. My one question is: isn’t there a better place than a college campus for this? I mean, college students are a relatively advantaged group to be giving free food to, right? Wouldn’t setting up shop in a poor neighborhood park serve a greater need?

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Definitely true! FNB groups have the policy of serving anyone, no matter what, with no strings attached. Usually, however, that means going into low income neighborhoods or where homeless people hang out.

      One of the reasons for serving college students is to help find like minded people so we can expand our operations. Also, we hope that people will help out ALL other people, even those not almost starving to death.

      Reply

  3. john’s avatar

    what’s your fuel cost/meal approx? thanks.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      One propane tank will last for ~20 meals, so about $1 each.

      Reply

  4. Ray’s avatar

    Most people just link to something on their facebook page and think they’re making a difference. You go out there and do good things for real human beings. You deserve a truckload of respect.

    Reply

  5. Bryan’s avatar

    Check your local church kitchens for baking large quantities of bread. 4 of us make about 75 1-pound loaves of bread in 2 large ovens at our church, it takes us about 8 hours.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Thanks. Do you have any links on recipes for doing that? Has anyone made this much spent grain bread before?

      Reply

  6. jseliger’s avatar

    About how long do you recommend cooking the dish with a scaled-down recipe for, say, 2 – 5, instead of 150?

    Also, I read this recipe for red lentil curry on Hacker News and have made variations of it for a couple years. It’s really inexpensive and easy to make, though it’s better with two pots:

    RED LENTIL CURRY

    2 cups red lentils
    1 large onion, diced
    1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    2 tablespoons curry paste
    1 tablespoon curry powder
    1 teaspoon ground turmeric
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon chili powder
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon white sugar
    1 teaspoon minced garlic
    1 teaspoon ginger root, minced
    1 (14.25 ounce) can tomato puree

    Wash the lentils in cold water until the water runs clear (this is very important or the lentils will get “scummy”), put the lentils in a pot with water to cover and simmer covered until lentils tender (add more water if necessary).
    While the lentils are cooking: In a large skillet or saucepan, caramelize the onions in vegetable oil.
    While the onions are cooking, combine the curry paste, curry powder, turmeric, cumin, chili powder, salt, sugar, garlic, and ginger in a mixing bowl. Mix well. When the onions are cooked, add the curry mixture to the onions and cook over a high heat stirring constantly for 1 to 2 minutes.
    Stir in the tomato puree and reduce heat, allow the curry base to simmer until the lentils are ready.
    When the lentils are tender drain them briefly (they should have absorbed most of the water but you don’t want the curry to be too sloppy). Mix the curry base into the lentils and serve immediately.

    You can add other vegetables and so forth to vary it some.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Once it’s boiling, just cook for 20 minutes. It’ll just take much less time to bring it all to a boil.

      Also, thanks a ton for the recipe! We have another small pot that we’re planning on using to create experimental recipes before going with the full 10 gallons. We’ll add this one to the list.

      Reply

  7. MH’s avatar

    I’d love to do this, and so would a lot of student unions here. Sadly, it’s forbidden by local law.

    Oh well.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      It’s actually probably not forbidden, you just have to jump through the right hoops. Because we’re not selling the food, we’re technically a potluck, so there’s relatively little regulations.

      Reply

  8. Xianhang Zhang’s avatar

    Bayleaves are a weird addition to a chinese stew. Also, instead of chili powder, try using whole, dried chinese chillis. For spices, the longer the cook, they more flavor is extracted. I’d put the spices in as early as possible and cook them for a good hour.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Bayleaves are a substitute for a Chinese herbal blend we couldn’t find out here. They were recommended by an actually-from-China friend, so I don’t feel too bad about it. He actually gave us the whole recipe, which we upscaled to 150 people.

      For the chili, we went with chili powder strictly as a cost saving measure. It would cost another 2-3 dollars per meal to add the real Chinese peppers.

      Reply

  9. MikeW’s avatar

    Don’t you mean lbs. of rice, not gallons? Because it comes in x lb. bags.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      It comes in lbs, but it’s easiest to measure for us in gallons. We have a 5 gallon pot, so 2 gallons raw rice + 4 gallons water = 5 gallons cooked rice.

      Reply

      1. MikeW’s avatar

        That was confusing since it’s not explained anywhere in the recipe. So you have a gallon mesuring cup/bowl, or quart or whatever, and actually measure out a full 2 gallons of rice in it, into the pot?

        Reply

        1. Mike’s avatar

          Exactly that. Yeah, I glossed over making the rice since I figured it wasn’t as complicated

          Reply

          1. MikeW’s avatar

            It’s not really complicated. It just threw me off a bit where you said 50 gallon bag of rice instead of 50 lb bag, which made me question using 2 gallons of it.

          2. Mike’s avatar

            Woops. Didn’t see that, and just fixed it.

            We cook 2 gallons at a time, but purchase 50 lbs bags.

  10. Frank’s avatar

    Is this UCR?

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      Yep! Stop by the bell tower on Friday for a free lunch!

      Reply

  11. John’s avatar

    Excellent article and funny to see how different ‘Food not Bombs’ is outside where I live. Here, it’s littered with pretentious hipsters and anarchists that are more interested in flexing their egos than being sincere.

    Reply

  12. george’s avatar

    Thank you for doing this and for the great recipe! At what point do you add the cornstarch?

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      It’s easiest to add it with the rest of the spices, this lowers the boiling point of water, though, so the food cooks slower. Best is to add it just before serving.

      Reply

  13. bob’s avatar

    don’t use rubber cement, that’s not food safe and potentially dangerous.

    next time use teflon tape like most plumbers use on water lines.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      The PVC cement is used on two unthreaded connections, and joins the pipes without touching the water supply. Plus the water is cold which should minimize chemical leaking even if they did contact. According to wikipedia, PVC is pretty safe.

      You are right, though, that I should replace it with something that has been FDA approved.

      Reply

    2. MikeW’s avatar

      It’s pvc cement, not rubber cement. And I thought a lot of plumbing used pvc pipes and therefore pvc cement, so is safe.

      Reply

  14. MikeW’s avatar

    couple more questions:
    Have you tried cooking the rice in the stew, instead of separately? or would that not work?

    I see where you mention vegetarian; would it be considered vegan? I have no clue, so just asking.

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      We don’t cook the rice separate because our pots are already full to the top and it’s just not logistically possible. I’m sure the rice would taste better that way though.

      Yep, also vegan :)

      Reply

  15. Siobhan’s avatar

    Hiya,

    I’m going to make this tomorrow – just want to check, is definitely only 2 lbs of broccoli (just want to make sure it’s not a typo as it’s a 1:20 ratio to the rest of the veg).

    Thanks!!

    Reply

    1. Mike’s avatar

      We use only 2 pounds because that’s what the costco size bag is in our area. I think a little more would probably be better, but it doesn’t really matter. They mostly just add some color to the stew.

      Good luck cooking! Let me know how it turns out!

      Reply

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>