From left: Laura Fendt and Kamal Hammouda pose in front of their future co-op housing project at 834 Park St.
From left: Laura Fendt and Kamal Hammouda pose in front of their future co-op housing project at 834 Park St.
Marc Duebener

Relish restaurateurs cook up new co-op housing initiative for students

Restaurateur and former Grinnell College Imam Kamal Hammouda and his wife Laura Fendt live in a large, picturesque house on Park Street, decorated with striking Spanish blue accents and rustic furniture. Known as the restaurant “Relish,” the couple have been whipping up meals for hungry customers since 1995. However, they now have bigger plans cooking on the horizon. 

By summer 2024, Hammouda and Fendt hope to take in Grinnell College students as part of a communal living initiative that will center around food and service to the community. 

Relish is no longer a fully operational restaurant as both Hammouda and Fendt are semi-retired. However, Hammouda’s kitchen shelves remain filled with packaging labels in a multitude of languages. It is a testament to their years of experience feeding the diverse community of Grinnell, and their special work on The Iowa Kitchen, a community service project they initiated in 2020. Every Saturday, community members — an average of 60 each time, according to Hammouda — come for hot meals of beef pot roast and curry chicken.

With over 40 years of experience running restaurants, Hammouda, who moved to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976, considers cooking his “therapy.” He said that he and Fendt wanted to start a housing co-op with Grinnell students to “generate” a new group of leaders for The Iowa Kitchen, which he said they believe is important in combating food insecurity in Grinnell.

From left: Relish restaurant owners Kamal Hammouda and Laura Fendt said they plan to open their restaurant doors to students this summer for a co-op house. (Marc Duebener)

“You’ll get people who say they haven’t had a meal in two days,” said Fendt. She added that it was “frightening” that there could be “more people that need a meal than we’ve even scratched the surface of,” she added, saying the possibility was “frightening.”

Hammouda said that through the Food Network Recovery program, volunteers currently pick up and repackage leftover food from Relish for their own network of food-insecure families. Calling this process an “indirect” delivery, Hammouda said that if there were more volunteers, Relish could directly deliver to community members.

“Some of the people that we’d like to reach might not have a way to get here to pick it up, and right now we don’t have delivery as an option,” Fendt said. 

The Relish co-op will be an off-campus living option for upperclassmen interested in learning to cook healthy, local food and helping with The Iowa Kitchen project’s efforts. For Fendt, taking in students was a good way to ensure the kitchen could continue serving the hungry in the event that Hammouda was unable to do so. 

As for Hammouda, he said he viewed it as a way to stay active in retirement. 

“There’s maybe my ego in the process — that I want my legacy to continue in food,” he said. 

However, he added, “I don’t want to be doing all the cooking myself forever.” 

Fendt said the couple have had experience hosting Grinnell students. “We’ve enjoyed having them in our space, and being part of their family,” she said, adding that the house was too big for only her and Hammouda.

Hammouda said that students always give him “doses of energy.”

“I love to impart knowledge, and I love to learn more,” he said, speaking of the students.

Hence, Hammouda said he and Fendt are not looking to simply hire experienced cooks as staff.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Hammouda asked. 

Instead, the couple said they want students “willing” to learn “what it takes” to prepare community meals. “It’s not just slapping food together,” said Hammouda.

Hammouda said Relish would host regular “showcase” events where the restaurant would reopen to customers for a meal specially prepared by the student residents.

Relish occasionally opens its doors to the public for special events. With student residents, Hammouda said he hopes to host more events with food cooked by students. (Marc Duebener)

Fendt explained that the co-op project is more than just expanding The Iowa Kitchen’s operations. Rather, it was about the sustainability of the effort and finding committed helpers that would continue their work even after full retirement.

“We’re not looking for people who just need a place to live — we’re looking for people who want to build a community, share meals and share space,” Fendt said.

The couple said that they were planning to start the co-op with three students. “Over time, if it’s successful … it can go up to 6 in this building, or even 11, including the building next door,” said Hammouda — the couple also owns the house next to Relish. 

Despite the logistical limitations they have faced, The Iowa Kitchen seems to be steadily gaining a presence. 

“In our first year, we served anywhere from 4 to 25 meals at a time,” Hammouda said. “My goal is to reach 100 at a time, and that seems to be within reach at this point.”

Fendt said that the co-op would operate on “baby steps.” However, she also expressed she was often surprised at how long the project has been running — three years and counting.

“We haven’t skipped a week since we started,” she said. “That’s pretty amazing to me.”

For any students interested in living in the co-op house, email or call (641) 236-3657.

From left: Laura Fendt and Kamal Hammouda pose in front of their hopeful co-op housing project at 834 Park St. (Marc Duebener)
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