Catering with conscience

In several cities, catering companies are training and hiring homeless people. A good idea? Yes. But the programs are also proving to be good for business.

Let's say you are a do-gooder. You volunteer at a homeless shelter. Perhaps you mentor a refugee child or give money to a battered women's shelter. You care about your community and have a social conscience.

Now let's say you're planning your daughter's wedding. It may be the most important event you will ever plan and you want everything just right - the flowers, the décor, the catering.

Ah, the catering. Now, here's the question: Would you consider using a nonprofit catering service that trains and employs homeless and formerly homeless men and women?

It's a good thing to do - giving a real hand to the needy so they don't have to live on handouts. On the other hand, what's racing through your mind are images of clean-cut waiters passing around plates of ginger-beef satays with spicy peanut sauce. Charity, you could argue, has its time and place.

Then again, maybe if you knew a little more, it might not seem a tough question at all.

A growing number of successful programs around the country are helping to train and employ the homeless or formerly homeless in the culinary arts. Moreover, as quickly as you can say caprese crostini with roma tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, they are breaking down stereotypes and changing the perceptions - and misperceptions - people continue to have about the homeless.

"Sure, sometimes we get remarks like 'Should I hide the silverware when they come over?' " says Ann Nix, the no-nonsense director of Washington's Fresh Start Catering, as she clicks through the packed February/March event schedule on her office computer. "It's a concept some people have to take time getting used to."

* * *

Four years ago, Linda Watson, a single mother of four and a recovering addict, was living in a shelter and feeling low. "My life was not going right," she says. "I lost the respect of my family, and I realized I did not want to die like this. I wanted to turn my life around."

Referred by the shelter to the 12-week culinary program at DC Central Kitchen - the parent organization of Fresh Start catering - she enrolled, graduated at the top of her class, and found a job at the Grand Hyatt hotel. There, she started as a prep assistant chopping onions, ended as a banquet chef, and a year later was lured back by Fresh Start to be the sous-chef of the catering service.

"I gave myself a present when I got that job," says Ms. Watson as she moves around the cramped kitchen space. "I took a one-week cruise to Mexico and Grand Cayman."

It's noon, and the seven-person catering team has been here in a corner of the DC Central Kitchen since 6 a.m. preparing for the evening's event, a buffet dinner party for 400 guests. Someone is cutting flank steak. Another person is dipping strawberries in rich milk chocolate. Watson is helping arrange sushi rolls on a platter.

"I had never taken a vacation before," she says, smiling as she peels off thin plastic gloves. "But I really felt I had earned it."

Her eldest son, also a recovering addict, has been clean for almost a year. "He told me, 'Mom, look at you - you did it.... So can I,' " she says.

"This kind of business is the future of the nonprofit world," says Robert Egger, a former club manager who founded DC Central Kitchen in 1989, and turned it into one of the most highly regarded nonprofits in the city.

The Kitchen recycles donated leftover food from restaurants and caterers - turning it into 4,000 free meals a day for the needy. Its 12-week culinary training program (which was started in 1990) and the Fresh Start catering business (started in 1996) work in the same space but as separate entities. Fresh Start uses bought, not donated, supplies and gives its proceeds back to the Kitchen's charitable programs.

"It's a win-win-win situation," says Mr. Egger, of the catering service. "We are employing graduates. They, and we, are getting paid. And we are fighting hunger by introducing a new idea and showing people how they can think differently."

Since the program's inception, more than 500 students have graduated. Most find jobs in restaurants around town, but others remain to work in-house. The catering company turned over about $500,000 to DC Central Kitchen last year, and is growing, says Nix.

Fresh Start catered some 400 events last year, including parties for the Smithsonian Institution, the Washington Ballet, and Georgetown University. The bulletin boards around the Kitchen are covered with notes of thanks from happy brides. And, from Boston to California, other nonprofits have come, seen, and modeled themselves after this program, sometimes even adding new facets of their own.

The Bread and Butter Cafe in downtown Savannah, Ga., for example, which offers an 18-week training program and restaurant experience, was started three years ago. It is now expanding into new areas - specializing in training for hospital and institutional cooking. And in Charlotte, N.C., the Community Culinary School and its catering arm, Encore catering, have begun offering evening programs.

"More and more nonprofit kitchens for the homeless are starting revenue-generating work like catering or a restaurant," says Linda Vogler, director of the North Carolina program, who studied the workings of Fresh Start before launching Encore.

"First of all, grants are running out. But, in addition, we realize we have to put our money where our mouth is - we need to lead by example. It's the new way of nonprofits, and DC Central Kitchen has served as a model for many of us," she says.

* * *

Susan Steinmetz is always on the lookout for good causes. So, when it came time for her eldest daughter's bat mitzvah a few years ago, it seemed only natural for her to turn to Will Doscher, president of New Course, an organization whose motto is "Catering with a conscience."

Under the auspices of Community Family Life Services, New Course takes homeless people, former inmates, and recovering addicts through a 16-week culinary course. During that time they get a $60-a-week stipend and on-the-job training in a cafeteria (New Course runs the US Tax Courts cafeteria), in a popular downtown restaurant ("3rd and Eats"), and with the catering operation itself.

More than 300 students have graduated from this training program since its launch 12 years ago, and about 80 percent have found jobs in the culinary field. The catering business, which started seven years ago, is earning $200,000 a year and is beginning to make its mark in the competitive and crowded Washington catering field, taking on everything from 500-person weddings to small "power breakfasts."

But the skills learned here go beyond the kitchen, says Jeannine Sanford, director of New Course's classroom training and employment. Students take classes on self-esteem, time management, work ethics, and team building.

"They are learning how to respect themselves and others, " says Ms. Sanford, "... and this will stand them in good stead no matter what they do."

As a prerequisite to joining this program (and also Fresh Start), enrollees must be sober, have stable living conditions, and be ready to make a commitment to helping themselves. About half of each class drops out before the end of the training, unable to meet these demands, says Mr. Doscher.

"Basically, I had never completed anything in my life," admits Danita Wright, a recovering addict who graduated last week from a New Course training program. Her boyfriend and three best friends from the transitional house where she lives attended the ceremony. She cried, she says, from pride.

"I made some positive changes here," she reflects. "I saw that I could do something."

The bat mitzvah, meanwhile, was, a "flawless" event, according to Ms. Steinmetz. "They were phenomenal. Everyone commented on the presentation and the service. It was excellent work."

Admittedly, her older daughter was a little anxious about the idea initially. "She wanted to have it catered at the same fancy places her friends were," says Steinmetz.

But two years later, when her younger daughter was ready for her bat mitzvah, there was no question as to whom to call.

"There were some important Washington political types at the party, and I wanted to put out literature explaining the mission of the nonprofit so as to give them publicity," says Steinmetz.

But Doscher preferred to let the food speak for itself, and allowed her to mention the special nature of the group only as the party was coming to a close.

"That was impressive," Steinmetz notes. "Professional."

"The initial attraction might be what we are doing for the community," explains Doscher. "But then it very quickly becomes how we do it. You can be an altruistic person, but if the catering service fouls up your wedding, you won't go recommending it."

Vernon Marlow went through the New Course training program two years ago, soon after being released from a four-year jail sentence for drug possession. Today he is the assistant manager of the 3rd and Eats restaurant. He says that diners are looking for what the eatery has to offer.

"The customers come because we have good hot entrees and a respectable salad bar," he explains. "Sure, this business has changed many a life around ... mine included. But besides all that - not too many places have fresh turkey like we do. That's the secret here."

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