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Hundreds of Nonprofits Train People to Work in Restaurants. What Happened When COVID Shut the Restaurants Down?

For many organizations, the first step in dealing with pandemic shutdowns was just to help their participants and alumni get through the initial weeks

On the evening of Saturday, March 14, 2020, the staff at Café Momentum served only seven diners. The downtown Dallas restaurant was consistently listed as one of the best in the city, but suddenly, fears about an emerging pandemic were keeping folks home. Café Momentum is more than just a restaurant, though. It is also a nonprofit that has spent 30 years training at-risk youth exiting the juvenile detention system to work in hospitality. So the staff and the 15 young people working that night spent most of the evening doing extra training and cleaning to keep busy.

The year had started off strong. In fact, Café Momentum was so successful that it was planning to expand to other cities around the country. Thanks to a partnership with the NFL, the nonprofit was set to host pop-up dinners everywhere from Los Angeles to Nashville. But then shelter-in-place orders started. “We were confronted with zero income from the restaurant, zero customers, zero work,” says Chad Houser, the organization’s founder, CEO, and executive chef.

By Tuesday, March 17, everyone in the organization was scrambling to find ways to keep people employed and keep their youth working. “People were scared,” says Houser. “People were afraid to be at work, but they were also afraid they would lose their jobs, because there was a lot of media attention around places closing and layoffs.” At the weekly staff meeting, they came up with an ad hoc plan: One group of staff members developed their first COVID safety protocols, ordering hand sanitizer, scheduling hand-washing breaks, and putting lines of blue painter’s tape across the floor of the restaurant to show people how to stay six feet apart. Others were tasked with figuring out how the interns could take the skills they had learned in the restaurant and use them to make meals for food-insecure students, since schools had shut down. The leadership team redid the staffing model to allow people to work from home as needed. By the end of the week, everyone’s job had completely changed.

Several U.S. nonprofits have spent decades training marginalized populations to work in the food and hospitality industry. Some, like Café Momentum, focus on young people who are homeless, have dropped out of school, were previously incarcerated, or are dealing with other barriers to succeeding in a traditional educational environment. Others serve adults facing similar obstacles. Training marginalized and at-risk populations to work in restaurants has long seemed like an obvious choice. “Hospitality’s a great entryway to stable employment because it’s low-barrier,” explains Gerald Duhon, the executive director of Café Reconcile, a nonprofit in New Orleans that has trained more than 2,000 young people to do everything from serving food to working a grill station, giving them hands-on experience in its popular restaurant before placing them in hospitality jobs throughout the city. FareStart, a nonprofit that trains both teens and adults in Seattle and works with a number of workforce development and social enterprise groups across the country, estimates that prior to the pandemic, there were approximately 400 nonprofits doing some kind of culinary-focused job training in the U.S.

As restaurants shut down due to COVID-19, these organizations found that the on-the-ground hospitality training that their work is predicated on was no longer possible. The problem was bigger than whether they could continue to employ current or future participants; most of these nonprofits also provide a host of social services, ranging from housing to on-site schooling. Keeping their participants employed is a key part of helping them remain stable, and, in some cases, keeping them housed.

“The folks that we serve are all well below the poverty line. Sixty percent have some sort of criminal background, a large portion are homeless or have experienced homelessness,” says Angela Dunleavy, the CEO of FareStart, which, being in Seattle, was one of the first groups to deal with pandemic-related closures. “We provide their housing, two meals a day, all the wraparound social services they need — mental health supports, recovery supports.”

In-person work is not just about stability and income; for some it’s a matter of health and safety. Drive Change — a New York City nonprofit that works with formerly incarcerated young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 — witnessed its fellows furloughed and laid off as COVID-19 ripped through the city. What the organization hadn’t anticipated was that one young man, who was participating in a work release program, was going to have to report back to jail because of the restaurant closures. “Once we found out, his employer was able to rehire him,” says Jordyn Lexton, Drive Change’s CEO and co-founder. “But the situation really highlights all of the factors that are at play.”

With stakes this high, shutting programs down or asking people to work from home was not a realistic option. Within the first few weeks, most of these groups realized that they were going to need to find ways to get their participants some kind of on-site work. Program directors for Old Skool Cafe, which works with at-risk youth in San Francisco, quickly realized that due to difficult living situations, switching to Zoom just wasn’t a viable option. For those participants, having somewhere to go during the day was more important than the staff had realized.

And it wasn’t just their current participants that these organizations had to worry about. Every group was also faced with the grim reality that many of their graduates from past years, and even decades, were suddenly out of a job. “The impact was immediate,” says Duhon. “When the pandemic first reached our community, a lot of alumni reached out to us. We had connected 20 years’ worth of alumni into the hospitality industry. Almost overnight, a lot of our alumni found themselves in the same position they were in when they first came to us, even if they had had stable employment for years.”

For many organizations, the first step to dealing with pandemic shutdowns was just to help their participants and alumni get through the initial weeks. Drive Change offered direct financial assistance to the most at-risk fellows. Café Reconcile offered gift cards and meals, and started connecting people to unemployment and other social services. Other groups sent food and toiletries to alumni.

Some organizations were able to keep their teams busy by focusing on other parts of their mission. Many workforce development organizations were already pairing their culinary training with providing meals to shelters and schools. DC Central Kitchen, a social enterprise organization that trains adults with histories of incarceration, homelessness, addiction, and other barriers to work in restaurants, also makes meals for community agencies and after-school programs. In response to the pandemic, the staff hired a dozen graduates of their program (on top of the 103 graduates already working there full-time) and turned their brand-new job-training cafe into a food-production site so they could deliver more meals to schools and shelters. They also started a mobile feeding program to bring food directly to housing sites, especially spots with large populations of seniors.

Simultaneously, DC Central Kitchen began looking to other parts of the food industry for employment opportunities, and ramped up its work with corner stores in the parts of the city where groceries have always been scarce. “Overnight we got into the fresh grocery distribution business,” says Alex Moore, DC Central Kitchen’s chief development officer. “We’ve always focused on prepared meals, but the number one thing that we heard from residents was that they were looking for fresh produce.” Over the course of a few months, they invested roughly $1.6 million into hard-hit local farms, built a massive grocery distribution center, and delivered more than 1.6 million pounds of produce to more than 150 locations around the city. In doing so, DC Central Kitchen became an important source of revenue for 69 small- and medium-sized family farmers who had lost much of their other income.

FareStart also turned its restaurants and catering sites into meal-production facilities, hired program graduates (as well as some laid-off restaurant workers), and began turning out more meals for Seattle shelters, schools, and mental health centers. By January 2021, it had made around 2.1 million meals since the start of the pandemic — a significant increase from their usual output of about 950,000 meals per year. Like DC Central Kitchen, FareStart placed more graduates in other kinds of food-focused jobs, outside of traditional hospitality work. “We’re placing a lot of folks in grocery stores, we have placed folks in high-volume food production, like frozen and ready-to-eat meals, some people went into facility management and retirement centers,” says Dunleavy. More of their graduates also started going into non-food jobs, including painting and construction.

Many of the workforce development organizations that had previously only focused on restaurants and hospitality also pivoted to feeding food-insecure populations. “The real game changer for us has been that we’ve picked up a lot of production cooking, or batch cooking, which we never did before,” says Café Reconcile’s Duhon. This included taking on work for Second Harvest Food Bank and World Central Kitchen, with both organizations paying the cafe to produce meals for them to distribute. “We’ve done over 50,000 meals through our catering operation, so that’s brought a lot of revenue in,” says Duhon.

Drive Change resurrected the food truck that had been its main training venue when it was first founded, and used it to support the work of local food assistance programs. This shift also let the nonprofit employ participants who had been laid off from restaurants. “We went back to the original value of being able to run something that allows you to hire people directly,” explains Jordyn Lexton.

Eventually, many organizations found new ways to do what they had been doing before by splitting teams up into small groups to allow for safe spacing and easy contact tracing. Old Skool Cafe started making meals for curbside pickup so that its participants could come back as essential workers, and when outdoor dining became an option in San Francisco, it set up a seating area just outside the front door. Café Reconcile reopened for indoor dining at reduced capacity, and DC Central Kitchen eventually moved a smaller version of their job-training program to the Washington Nationals’ stadium, which allowed them space to socially distance.

Once the initial days of change and restructuring had passed, many groups found surprising lessons, and even some opportunities, in the ways the pandemic has affected their organizations. Houser, of Café Momentum, found real value in having his participants make meals for local school-based food-distribution centers. “The juvenile system refers to these kids as ‘throwaway,’” he says. “So for them to be recognized as critical lifelines, that they stepped up when their community needed it the most, was really, really powerful.”

“We teach our youth about trying to have a mindset that is flexible, because life is always going to throw you lemons, but this was a great opportunity for us to model that ourselves,” says Teresa Goines, the founder of Old Skool Cafe. “I think it was good for them, seeing the adults struggle too and watching how we learn perseverance and grit.” Goines also notes that the slowdown at the restaurant allowed the organization to work on some programs that they had intended to do previously, but never found the time to implement, such as teaching the kids to help with fundraising, which gave them an opportunity to practice social skills and, she hopes, might lead to other kinds of employment down the line.

Above all else, the pandemic highlighted problems in the hospitality industry that many of these groups were already acutely aware of. Issues like job instability and the lack of opportunities for advancement were already endemic; COVID-related shutdowns only exacerbated them. “The fragility of the restaurant industry is not something that is new to people who’ve been working in it,” says Lexton, of Drive Change. “Our mission is to create quality employment for young adults who are coming home from jail. That quality employment is a really key piece, and it’s also one of the hardest pieces for us to achieve inside the restaurant industry, because the jobs have historically been low-wage and have challenging hours.”

After a year spent connecting their participants and alumni with food work outside of traditional restaurant spaces, many organizations will continue to think beyond restaurants for job placement going forward. It’s about “keeping a really open mind to what the jobs of the future are going to look like,” says FareStart’s Dunleavy, who plans to continue placing graduates in food-focused roles outside of traditional hospitality spaces. She points out that grocery stores with deli counters are an ideal spot for graduates with culinary training, and that these jobs are, in many ways, better for some people than traditional restaurant jobs because they have more consistent hours and are often unionized.

Some organizations are even working toward changing the restaurant industry itself. Drive Change offers anti-racist trainings for restaurateurs in New York City who want to take an equitable approach to hiring, training, and management. Going forward, the leadership plans to train their participants to do more of this work themselves, as an alternative to more traditional hospitality work. “These are things our fellows have experienced directly,” says Priscilla Mota-Willis, the group’s senior director of fellowship training. “So what we’re trying to do is involve them in developing trainings that support the food industry in building a space that is more equitable for everyone.”

The leadership at DC Central Kitchen is planning to expand their culinary training program, particularly since they anticipate an even greater need for workforce development as the country gets back on its feet. But Alex Moore hopes to couple that expansion with more work to transform the restaurant and hospitality industry. “I hope that there is an opportunity as the industry rebuilds — and begins to wrestle with its really problematic gender and racial dynamics and with its labor practices — to rethink that previously accepted churn and burn of people and of talent,” he says. “If there’s a way for workforce programs like ours to really drive those longer-term outcomes, so that businesses don’t have to be constantly rehiring and retraining people, and the people who need those advancement opportunities can stick in the industry, that can be a win-win for everybody.”

Georgia Freedman is a freelance journalist and editor based in Oakland, CA.
Marylu Herrera is a Chicago-based artist with a focus on print media and collage.
Lead image photo by Rasheem Rooke for DC Central Kitchen, interstitial photo by Drive Change; all additional imagery from Unsplash.


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