Serving fine fare, cafe alters the course of at-risk youth
In a small rehabbed storefront on a street corner where drug dealers and prostitutes used to hang out, young people who have been in jail or were likely on their way are learning to cook, bus tables and greet customers. And along the way, they are getting a chance for a new life.
Cafe Reconcile began as an experiment in 2000 to take at-risk teens off the streets and teach them how to make a living in the city's thriving hotel and restaurant industry. Five years later, it has turned into a bustling restaurant, attracting more than 150 daily customers who stand in line for a taste of the white beans and shrimp or tarragon chicken salad that can rival that of any five-star restaurant in New Orleans.
In a city known for its food, Cafe Reconcile, which is open only for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, was voted one of the 40 top restaurants in New Orleans and one of the top 10 soul food restaurants in the city. In addition to the food, the prices are a major draw. The priciest dish on the menu is the fried catfish with spicy crawfish sauce and a side dish for $7.95.
225 completed program
Approximately 225 young people have gone through the training program, which in addition to teaching the ins and outs of the restaurant business includes an independent living component that helps them with everything from getting a GED to renting an apartment. Some graduates have gone on to find jobs at well-known establishments such as Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, the New Orleans Hilton and the Palace Cafe.
"Some kids would come in here and couldn't look you in the eye. Some of them were at the lowest, but I look at it like we are planting a seed that will grow over time," said executive director Craig Cuccia, an attorney who started the project along with a Jesuit priest, Rev. Harry Tompson, who was battling cancer and died a year after the restaurant opened. "It's about exposing people to something different and changing attitudes about what they can accomplish."
Cafe Reconcile gets its training staff of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 from referrals, mostly from the courts, relatives and other agencies that work with young adults who are considered high risk for a life of crime. They work alongside full-time employees to learn basic things like how to greet a customer or recommend the house favorite, bananas foster bread pudding with rum for dessert. They learn to make soups, salads and sandwiches, how to serve them and how to wash the dishes.
The program has changed the lives of young people like Tyrone Fox, who at age 17 has experienced more of the bad side of life than most people see in a lifetime. Like many of the participants, Fox came to Cafe Reconcile after a stint behind bars. He had spent three months in jail for carrying a concealed weapon, but he concedes that he was well on his way to a life of much more serious crimes.
"I came up struggling and everything I had, I had to get on my own," said Fox, one of four children who grew up in a city housing project. "This program turned my life around. I know how to address people in the proper way, I don't wear a lot of hip-hop clothes anymore and I am on my way to getting my GED. I feel like there's a future for me."
These days, instead of hanging on the streets with his "crew," Fox spends his time in the kitchen at Cafe Reconcile shadowing executive chef Don Byrd. Before learning how to run the kitchen, he went from working as a bus boy, to salad chef to frying catfish.
Though he isn't sure he wants a future in the restaurant business, he said he is glad to have some training in the food industry in case the job he really wants in construction does not work out.
"I can do a lot of things now, and I didn't know I had it in me," said Fox.
Not every story out of Cafe Reconcile is a happy one.
"Our biggest challenge is making the connection stick," said assistant director Pam Broom. "We are very nurturing and supportive here, but that does not mirror what happens outside these doors. They live a life that we have no clue about. Sometime we get too close, and something happens, it can pull on your emotions."
One of the greatest losses occurred last year when one of the star students, 21-year-old Grover Arbuthnot, was murdered in his old neighborhood. Arbuthnot, who had been in and out of jail since an armed robbery at age 15, seemed to be on his way to success. Then he was shot multiple times in the head at close range. Police are still investigating his death.
Patrons flock to cafe
In the early years, people flocked to this once-dilapidated building in an economically struggling neighborhood far from the trendy French Quarter to show their support for a worthy cause. Now, everyone from state legislators to the governor come because Cafe Reconcile has made a name for itself.
"We have people coming in who have not been in this part of the city for 30 years," said Cuccia, who keeps the restaurant open with donations and government grants. "One man came in and said to me, `Either you are crazy or God sent you,' and he wrote a check for $20,000."
Latasha Smith, 20, said the restaurant has kept her on track as she works toward her goal of playing basketball for Tulane University.
"I feel very proud of myself now," said Smith, who had never been in trouble but lives in a crime-ridden housing development. " I had never thought of food service, but now I love it.