THE Hollywood Diner, a vintage 1950s restaurant often used as a movie set, is dishing up more than Americana these days. It's teaching the American way: working hard for a living.
Downtown businessmen, secretaries, construction workers, and tourists may crowd into the peach-colored vinyl booths every day for a cheap and decent meal. But the staff cooking and serving the food are inner-city youths - not long out of jail or off the streets - getting an education as a court-ordered condition of their probation.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic, shot through with social skill-building, take on a new meaning here, says Bill Staffa, a psychologist who manages the city-owned diner as a vocational education program.
"For a 17-year-old preoccupied with his own survival and who has maybe only a third-grade reading level," Mr. Staffa says, surviving the six-month training program is not easy.
In the no-nonsense tone he uses with the youths, Staffa rattles off what sounds like the day's lesson for an urban boot camp:
Use your alarm clock: don't wait for grandma to wake you up for your 6:30 a.m. shift. Greet customers clearly and don't mumble. Smile. Memorize the menu: Hamburgers are $2.25; chocolate shakes $1.60. Write your orders so the customer and the cook can read them. Stay cool when the customers at table 13 in the corner are rude. Don't forget the spoon when you serve the coffee. Smile some more.
For a time, the diner was operated as vocational training for Baltimore high school students. But, say customers who remember, service was slow, the place didn't look as nice, and food didn't taste as good. The operation also lost $100,000 to $200,000 a year.
Today, the irony is that under the staff of juvenile offenders whose crimes range from chronic truancy to multiple felonies, the Hollywood Diner's reputation for food and good service is as sparkling as its stainless-steel trim. IBM and other businesses have scheduled parties here, and as the youths' catering reputation grows, says Staffa, the current $35,000 annual operating deficit is likely to turn to profits.
Moreover, after 14 months in operation for juvenile offenders, no participant has had another criminal charge, Staffa says.
The program was started with $20,000 seed money from the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development, a private nonprofit agency that contracts with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services to run the program. The city leases the diner to the program for $1 a year. Youths spend six months in paid jobs with the program, which includes an after-work high school equivalency course. Six to eight youths are on staff at any one time under Staffa's supervision.
While school-based enterprises are common, connecting vocational education to the juvenile justice system is unusual, observes James R. Stone III, a University of Minnesota education professor and a researcher with the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, which has studied the diner.
"Here they're actually trying to teach entrepreneurial ideas and other ways of living their lives. The value in this for kids who've had scrapes with the law is to teach academic skills with an immediate connection [to the work world], to teach them to work with a group and that there's no profit if they fail. Some refer to it as the American way," he says.
Indeed, Calvin S., says the program taught him things he never understood before.
"This place taught me how to express myself, it taught me teamwork and public relations. It does more than keep you out of trouble, it helps stabilize you.... I feel comfortable cooking now," says Calvin, an 18-year-old graduate of the program who is now a steward at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel here.
The stability of one-on-one relationships at the diner - where Staffa and an adult cook supervise and advise the youths - fills needs never met for many of them, explains Ivan Leshinsky, the executive director of the Chesapeake Foundation.
In traditional public schools and even in residential programs for troubled youths, he says, "a kid might deal with eight or 12 people a day, and they have so much difficulty forming relationships they can build on."
Joe G., a 19-year-old who spent six months in jail charged as an adult for a crime he cares not to discuss, agrees.
"On other jobs and at school you might not have people talk to you like Bill does. It makes a big difference - he has time," says Joe. After countless turndowns on his job applications elsewhere in the city, he speaks proudly of his diner job.
"We catered a party for 35 [last month]. I made the sandwiches and cole slaw and we met the deadline for the platters. To serve food like that, it really got to me. I feel proud," he says.