With a laser focus on “leveraging the center of the plate to do good in the world,” Matt Haley has been able to catapult his life to a place few could even imagine.
As the founder, president and chief executive of Delaware-based Matt Haley companies, Haley oversees one of the fastest growing restaurant groups in the world. For the indomitable Haley that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 53-year old, who exudes more energy than Halley’s Comet, brings an unrivaled passion to his humanitarian causes that literally circle the globe.
Through his spirit of giving Haley has funded rescue missions for kidnapped children in Nepal; raised money for an education initiative in Nicaragua to empower low-income children and adults; participated in Washington, D.C.’s Covenant House Sleep Out to raise awareness and money for homeless youth across the United States; and supported more local causes than seems humanly possible.
“This organization does not exist in our community, but rather for and because of our community, both local and global,” says Haley.
On paper Haley’s life reads like a Hollywood script but it’s his back-story that has served as the catalyst for his life of service.
Following years of substance abuse and the accompanying emotions of intense guilt and shame, Haley was incarcerated for three years after a conviction on drug charges.
“I got arrested and I got locked up,” says Haley. “I had no options but ultimately got sober because I was surrounded by people who cared.”
Those people include his mother, who pleaded with his lawyers and the judge not to let Haley out of jail on a technicality “because it would kill him,” and his therapist, Jan Weng, who he credits with saving his life.
“These are the real heroes,” asserts Haley.
Once sober Haley discovered a safe harbor through cooking. He landed minimum wage jobs and forged ahead, one day at a time, developing his culinary skills on the journey.
Haley followed his dreams and made his way to the beaches of Delaware, where he opened Bluecoast Seafood Grill in 2001, which within three weeks of opening was doing 300 covers nightly.
“It was awesome, but crazy. We were doing 16 hour days.”
Today Haley’s restaurant portfolio, which flies under the SoDel Concepts umbrella, features an array of acclaimed operations including Matt’s Fish Camp, Fish On, Lupo di Mare, Bluecoast Seafood Grill, Northeast Seafood Kitchen, Catch 54 and Papa Grande’s.
He’s also started Plate Catering, Highwater Management, a foodservice management company as well as Haley/Kammerer Consulting, a consulting firm and a concessions division, which operates at several area sports complexes.
“In my world everything begins with the arts and the arts include the culinary arts,” says the chef, who is a member of the James Beard Foundation.
“With food you can make connection which stretches around the world. Working in a kitchen creates a bond and an experience that is hard to find in other environments.”
Haley’s generosity with time, resources and brainpower extends well beyond a nine to five existence.
Dedicated to causes that aid minority communities, Haley is president of the board of directors for La Esperanza, a cooperative designed to provide aid, and education to the Latino community in Southern Delaware. To that end Haley’s newest restaurant, Papa Grande’s, donates 25 percent of the net profits to this community and he also supports a music school for Hispanic children.
He has brought attention to the plight of the Mexican migrant through his documentary film, “Hands of Harvest.” His production company SoDel Films has produced other films including “Motorcycle Chang Pa,” which chronicles the lives of the nomadic Chang pa tribe through the Himalayan deserts.
Closer to home Haley receives love and encouragement from an extensive support system which includes his 1,000 employees, three siblings, his mom in Alpharetta, Georgia, three daughters in Nepal, Laxmi 15, Leela, 13, and Jyoti 11, and Kaitlee, his significant other.
“She supports everything I believe in,” he says. “But I had to do the work with myself to get to the point where I could be available for a woman like that. I wasn’t emotionally ready.”
That work involves staying sober and helping others in their recovery. Haley, who devotes hundreds of hours a year speaking to inmates, says he knows, “I am always three seconds away from being right back where I was but having a better handle on things has allowed me to expand those three seconds out. I don’t have to live in fear anymore.”
Haley, who has accomplished more than a small army, counts his greatest success 23 years of sobriety.
“If I can be an example for others and come into their hearts, mind or soul, now that’s something to be proud of.
“To know that is a byproduct of how I turned my life around makes me comfortable in the fact that I wouldn’t change a thing.”