St. Anthony Foundation: Be our guest

St. Anthony Foundation: Be our guest

Nov 2023 | Special Projects

St. Anthony Foundation has been a pillar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood for over 70 years, providing food, clothing, medical care, and community. The team at St. Anthony’s views what they do as more than offering emergency services—they are dedicated to offering their guests a gateway to stability.

“Guest” is the key word in the foundation’s philosophy. Every person who walks through St. Anthony’s doors is welcomed into its community without judgment and treated with dignity and respect. This ethos serves to build trust between guests and employees, which helps guests to take the next step towards building a better life. The fact that almost one in three of St. Anthony’s employees are former guests of the organization is a testament to both the effectiveness of its approach and the strength of its community.

While St. Anthony’s size and scope has expanded tremendously since its humble beginnings (the dining room serves on average 1,700 meals a day), its guiding Franciscan values have remained steadfast: every person has the same God-given dignity, and change happens when you give people the respect and space to be known.

From sandwiches to social services

In 1950, Father Alfred Boedekker was a Franciscan pastor at St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Moved by the homelessness he saw all around the church, he started handing out sandwiches from the back door of the rectory on Golden Gate Avenue. He soon came to realize, however, that after a person received their sandwich, they had nowhere to eat it in comfort—or company. Serving vulnerable populations without engaging more meaningfully with them did not fully align with his values. Father Alfred sought to expand his services after gaining insight into the various barriers patrons were experiencing, most notably homelessness and substance use disorders. 

St. Anthony Foundation grew from his determination to create a consistent and dedicated space where all would be welcome to share a meal together. After a generous donation that gave St. Anthony’s a permanent home, it was able to begin providing temporary housing, an addiction recovery program, and a medical clinic.

Since opening its doors in 1950, St. Anthony’s has served over 47 million meals. Through the free clothing program, over 350,000 articles of clothing are distributed every yearalmost 1,000 garments every single dayand the medical clinic treats 2,500 people annually.

Father Alfred, the pastor at St. Boniface Church, started by handing out sandwiches from the back door of the rectory on Golden Gate Avenue.
After a donor gifted St. Anthony's a physical space, Father Alfred (left) was able to offer addiction recovery services.
St. Anthony’s has always been a volunteer-centric organization, and in 1986 it enlisted the help of professional coordinators to grow the volunteer program.

“By engaging people—by recognizing their dignity and giving the respect to every single person that they all deserve—that is where our theory of change starts. People who are seen and known can engage, they can take the next step. But they have to desire to make a change. That’s only possible when they know there’s something good on the other side that they trust.”

Nils Behnke

CEO, St. Anthony Foundation

Franciscan values, modern leadership

Nils Behnke, CEO of St. Anthony Foundation

When former Executive Director Father John Hardin sought to develop a strategic plan in 2008, the mission of St. Anthony’s was not up for discussion—all they needed was a bit of operational direction. Nils Behnke, then a senior partner at the consulting firm Bain & Company and a donor to St. Anthony’s, took on the task as a pro bono project. Behnke became more and more involved with the foundation, becoming a board member in 2011, board chair in 2019, and finally answering the call to assume the role of CEO, bringing a new orientation to the organization. Behnke reflected, “A lot of the things that I saw were great, but if we could align action with our values, we could achieve so much more.”

Over the last three years, Behnke has set out to put into action the honorable values of the organization, drawing on the management techniques he developed over the 17 years working at Bain. Behnke says that while he didn’t realize it at the time, all of his work with St. Anthony’s has played a critical role in his personal journey of faith, and becoming CEO was “at the intersection of deep mission orientation and the ability to contribute professionally.”

No one doubted Behnke’s dedication to the organization or his alignment with their values, but it’s fair to say there was some concern about how his corporate background might change the culture of the foundation. To earn people’s trust, Behnke leaned on an attribute that is also infused in the mission of St. Anthony’s itself: authenticity. Not only in mission alignment, but in gaining a deep understanding of the operations and people around him. Behnke spent the first month in his new role working in each service area and speaking to the employees and volunteers who worked there. “You need to first try to understand, before trying to be understood,” he explains. This lesson is one that not only informs how employees work together at St. Anthony’s, but also how they approach serving their guests.

“I love St. Anthony's Dining Room. As a senior, it’s so nice I don’t have to wait in line. I just come right in, sit at a table, and the servers bring me a tray. They are always smiling, gracious, friendly, and warm. This place is more than just a free meal. It’s a spiritual experience!”



“What we do here in the dining room, it’s a contact sport. We actually interact with our guests, and we see that not as a burden but as ultimately enriching and joyful.”

Nils Behnke

CEO, St. Anthony Foundation

“We cook healthy meals that we’d want to eat, hoping our guests enjoy them, too. It’s wonderful to be part of this community. Food is love, and we’re here to spread the love—that’s the heart of it.”

Annria Rossouw

St. Anthony’s Executive Chef and Food Services Manager

“St. Anthony’s is a place where not only am I able to get a nutritional meal, but also a place where the staff always greets you with a smile. You can tell by their actions and facial expressions that you are very welcome and they are not judging me or my predicament of being homeless or my appearance. I'm very grateful to St. Anthony's but more importantly, to the staff!”


St. Anthony Foundation

Be our guest

Following this philosophy of service, every person that walks through the doors of St. Anthony’s is treated as a guest. From leadership down to volunteers, authenticity and mutual trust are embedded into the ethos and practices of everything St. Anthony’s does.

As an organization that started by handing out sandwiches, the dining room is still regarded as the heart of the foundation. It is almost always a person’s first introduction to St. Anthony’s, and everyone is welcomed in, no questions asked. If St. Anthony’s serves as a gateway to stability, then the dining room serves as the nexus of the organization’s programs and offerings.

This communal dining space is what has drawn Koret to work with St. Anthony’s for over 30 years. Koret’s support ranges from annual giving to the dining room as part of the foundation’s Food Program, to a capital grant for the complete renovation into a state-of-the-art kitchen and dining area over a decade ago.

Guests enjoying a free meal at St. Anthony Foundation's Dining Room
Guests enjoying a free meal at St. Anthony Foundation's Dining Room
Guests enjoying a free meal at St. Anthony Foundation's Dining Room

As part of the emphasis on community, every St. Anthony’s volunteer and employee is expected to engage with guests. There are, however, trained “guest navigators” who are specially trained to identify individuals who may be ready to learn about services that the organization offers beyond meals.

Behnke’s philosophy asserts that employees and volunteers need to get to know someone on a personal level and build trust before offering them help. Across all cultures and communities, the best way to do this is to sit down and share a meal together.

The dining room is the central hub of St. Anthony’s, both in activity and in spirit, and staff hope that it is only the beginning of their guests’ experience. The foundation offers 10 other services to help their guests overcome the challenges of addiction, poverty, and homelessness. These are a free clothing program; a resource center; community safety services; a medical clinic; a year-long residential addiction recovery program; a tech lab; transitional employment services; women’s and children’s services; a hygiene hub; and St. Clare’s Care for resting.

While the heart of St. Anthony’s is the dining room, the Franciscan philosophy is the soul, woven into the fabric of the organization and informing every exchange between staff and guests. “What we do here, it’s a contact sport,” Behnke says. “We actually interact with our guests, and we see that not as a burden, but as ultimately enriching and joyful.”