Put Ya Foot In It : Café Reconcile
In 1996, Rev. Harry Tompson, S.J., then pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish Church, joined forces with concerned community members Craig Cuccia and Tim Falcon. The trio sought to address the system of neglect, violence, and generational poverty that had plagued the youth of New Orleans for years.
The group gathered like-minded community activists, consulted media outlets, advanced existing research, and shared their own personal experiences in order to better understand the cause and effect of such widespread destructive behavior and economic stagnation.
In an effort to stem the tide of violence and inspire hope in the community’s at-risk youth, the group began to develop a model for providing a safe and supportive place where the teens could gather and grow. The initial goals were simple: to provide young people who desired a change with a chance to learn the necessary skills that would put them on a productive path, and to establish a positive presence in Central City, restoring a sense of community and stimulating economic growth in a vital New Orleans neighborhood.
Using funds from generous donors, the founders purchased a blighted but beautiful historic five-story building in the heart of Central City. The building was to serve as the center of operations and the cornerstone of vast neighborhood rehabilitation. At the time of the building's purchase, the corner lot on which the building is situated was a hotbed of drug activity and prostitution.
To establish a positive presence early on, the founders opened a sweet shop, called “Sweet T" on the ground floor of the new building. Neighborhood youth quickly began patronizing the shop. Before long the founders noticed that the young people were sticking around to talk, make friends and more often than not, to avoid the negative situations awaiting them at home. Sweet T was originally managed by Tyrone Hall; Café Reconcile’s first success story and social entrepreneur. A lifelong resident of Central City, Mr. Hall now owns a local courier service, has served on the Café’s board of directors, and remains closely tied to the mission and the community.
With Sweet T as its foundation, Café Reconcile officially opened for business on September 5, 2000. The Cafe serves as a learning environment providing the of life-skills and job training envisioned by its founders. In addition to being recognized as a pioneer in culinary training and life-skills development, Café Reconcile quickly garnered praise from local and national food critics for its high-quality dishes. Since opening, Café Reconcile has successfully trained more than 1,000 young people between the ages of 16-22, and placed them in jobs in the hospitality industry around the city of New Orleans.
As the name and mission both suggest, Reconcile New Orleans, Inc. is founded on the premise that the power of reconciliation can help us overcome poverty, prejudice, and fear, both within ourselves and our community. This organization reaches out to youth in New Orleans, and works closely with local leaders from all backgrounds to provide young men and women with a voice about issues they are facing, and preparing them for the future with sustainable life-skills. Café Reconcile believes that breaking down barriers of race, culture, and religion can lead to systemic change, creating a model of renewal supported by social, spiritual, and economic enrichment.
Students at Café Reconcile are mentored by restaurant staff in various rotating workstations, such as Steward; Floor service/Wait staff; Pantry; Sous and Department Chef during lunch service, which serves 120 to 150 customers daily. Additional instruction outside of dining hours, including regular demonstration lessons by local executive chefs, offers in-depth skills and development.
With the cooperation of community partners, students complete the program with a four-week internship at a New Orleans area restaurant, hotel, hospital or university. This opportunity offers an intensive hands-on experience to refine and improve skills, as well as to understand and adapt to workplace culture. These placements foster professional relationships that students are able to use to extend and expound upon their career networks.
The Aftermath of the Storm
In Fall 2006, Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the entire city of New Orleans. Though Café Reconcile sustained significant damage, the Central City neighborhood was spared the kind of large scale flooding that had devastated other parts of town. With hard work to match their determination to move forward, Café Reconcile was among the first 12 restaurants to reopen in New Orleans, just five weeks after the storm. The workforce development program was suspended for nearly a year, but team members served lunch to first responders and other disaster-relief providers. The efforts of the Reconcile family were recognized by President Barack Obama, when founder Craig Cuccia was invited to attend the State of the Union Address as a guest of honor later that year. The Café leaders were also aware of the city’s dire need for skilled construction workers to help with rebuilding, and in response launched a construction training program to complement the culinary training program that had been in place for years.
Café Reconcile utilizes the 21st Century Success Principles curriculum, developed by the New Orleans Jobs Initiative over a ten-year period. This curriculum addresses participants’ understanding of workplace culture and is tailored to at-risk African-American youth with little connection to the labor market. The Café also provides personalized and comprehensive case management services to help students overcome obstacles such as unstable housing and unreliable transportation. These referrals enable students to address their personal issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, while offering legal assistance to students in need.
Café Reconcile has continued to advance their mission by encouraging personal growth, providing workforce development and training, and promoting entrepreneurship. The Café also works with businesses, nonprofits and people of faith to support this transformation in their students as they continue to build strong communities through neighborhood economic development.
Meeting an initial goal of $1,000 would provide a class of students at Reconcile with Breakfast and Lunch for a month.
A secondary goal of $2,000 would cover student bus passes for the entire group for 2 months, ensuring safe and reliable transportation to and from class.
A final goal of $5,000 would provide 4 students with a $100-a-week stipend during their final internship, easing the process of work without pay, and teaching students the importance of budgeting.