A whole different way of running a restaurant

This alum put social change on the menu


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JONATHAN COHEN
Eliot Fiks '77 has been with Whole in the Wall since its creation in 1980. He and Stacey Gould '91 are now partners in the restaurant.

Eliot Fiks ’77 created an award-winning recipe much the same way he designed his own major at Binghamton University: By mixing a little of this and a little of that.

Fiks is one of the originators of the locally famous Whole in the Wall restaurant, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Since its inception, the restaurant has been an expression of Fiks’ belief that one person can make a difference.

At Binghamton, he majored in social change — an independent effort that let him study a lot of social movements and history. “It was kind of a potpourri of everything,” he says. “I never took more than two courses in any one department.”

“I planned on dedicating my life to social change,” he says, but ended up working as a dishwasher and custodian. “I got fired from one job for trying to start a union and from another job ’cause I was not scrubbing the urinals with enough gusto.”

Fiks eventually found his calling in the kitchen. He and his housemate cooked a lot and talked about opening a restaurant. “I called his bluff and he called mine, and here I am 30 years later,” he says.

Whole in the Wall has always stood apart from other restaurants in Binghamton. It has atmosphere without being fancy. It promotes healthy food without being preachy. And the menu ranges from burgers (grass-fed, locally raised beef) to organic tofu (deep-fried or raw).

“When I started working here there was no red meat at all,” says co-owner Stacey Gould ’91, a School of Management graduate who started working at the restaurant in 1990. “We definitely pay attention to changes in the food business, and if we can accommodate them, we do.”

That means the restaurant is often ahead of the curve. Over the past three decades, changes to the menu read like a timeline of healthy food trends: What started with a focus on vegetarian entrees has evolved to include vegan and gluten-free options and even organic burgers. The restaurant was the first in the area to go smoke-free, years before it became the law.

Then, about 16 years ago, Fiks hit on an idea that would put social change on the front burner: He would make stone soup.

Briefly, the story of stone soup is a tale in which three soldiers returning from war arrive in a village and ask for food. When the villagers reply that their cupboards are bare (in fact, they’ve hidden their food), the soldiers say they’ll make stone soup. They heat a pot of water and add some stones. When one soldier says the soup will be good, but would taste better if it had a carrot, a villager produces a bunch of carrots. The ruse continues until the pot is full of vegetables and a delicious soup is made and shared.

In Fiks’ recipe, the “stones” are the bits and ends of vegetables that aren’t pretty enough to serve but are good enough to eat. They are frozen until there are enough to make a pot of soup, which is then donated to the Salvation Army. Whole in the Wall makes a 5-gallon pot of Stone Soup once a week.

“We have donated over 70,000 meals from what seems like nothing,” he says.

In 1999, Fiks won a humanitarian award from E-Town, a nationally syndicated radio show on NPR. The award recognizes people who help improve the lives of others in their communities. Fiks encourages other restaurants to make stone soup; the recipe and instructions are posted at www.wholeinthewall.com.

It wasn’t obvious to him at first, but Fiks has come to understand that his interests in food and political and social change are bound together. “The best things in life are more synergistic than self-conscious,” he says. And when it comes to the role of food in social change, he says, “I think it’s becoming more important every day.”

“People are coming down with all these diseases, and it’s strongly affected by what they eat,” he says. Now doctors and the government are urging people to eat healthy food, which isn’t always easy.

Whole in the Wall today isn’t exactly what Fiks had in mind when the business opened. Most patrons know it for its food, commercially marketed pesto (120 stores in 29 states) and the impressive list of celebrities (from Ani DiFranco to Stevie Wonder) who have eaten there — a sign of success for any restaurant.

“My original vision was to set up a seed fund to start alternative businesses from the proceeds of the restaurant. It didn’t come about,” he says. Instead, the restaurant has found its niche by focusing on healthy food, feeding the community and offering apprenticeships for cooks. “I didn’t know that’s how it was going to work, but that’s what became the real version of my original vision.”