At your service: Café Reconcile expands
An art square above the new kitchen at Café Reconcile says it all: “We can change the world.”
That’s what Café Reconcile encourages each out-of-school young adult aged 16-22 enrolled in its program to do – complete 12 weeks and the world is your oyster.
March 11 marked a triumphant day for Reconcile New Orleans. After five months of renovations, the five-story building at 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. that it has called home for 13 years reopened.
Having only previously used 2,400 square feet of the bottom floor for its Café Reconcile workforce development program, the transformation of the space into 17,000 square feet of space is astounding, said Glen Armantrout, chief executive officer. And there’s off-street parking behind the building.
The new kitchen alone has 3,400 square feet and has three professional chefs, including a director of food services. Café Reconcile seats approximately 40 percent more – about 150 diners – indoors. Additional outdoor seating is offered on a courtyard and a second-floor balcony.
Assist from Emeril
Other long-awaited additions include:
The Emeril Lagasse Foundation Hospitality Center on the second level, with a separate kitchen that accommodates up to 150 seated or 250 standing and can be rented;
The Shell Family Learning Center on the third floor where students are taught life skills such as resume preparation, job opportunities, interviewing, how to access housing, child care, counseling and mental health services and case managers that track graduates for a year; A fourth floor to be rented to a community partner; A fifth floor housing administrative offices.
“We can offer students a much better learning environment because of the increased program space,” said Armantrout, who has been involved with Reconcile New Orleans since 1997. “We also want to increase the number of students we accept. Our goal is to get up to 300 a year.”
Some program changes
Armantrout said the down time during renovations allowed for adjustments to the program. The intake time was expanded to two weeks to better evaluate a candidate’s readiness through a profile assessment currently used in the restaurant industry. Administrators also revamped the life-skills portion of the program to keep students engaged and to better address the barriers to graduation. They also tried to improve their assessment of class members’ personalities to ensure they can cooperate with each other in the same class.
An essential change made was requiring participants to get their GED while enrolled if they don’t already have it. That takes 90 minutes a day with another teaching partner. This prompted Armantrout to hire former graduates to staff the cafe while students are in school.
“It comes down to our success rate,” Armantrout said. “It’s all about outcomes, producing graduates who are sustaining jobs and following a career path. In our evolution, we are much more intense in every aspect of what we do. We have found our holes and found out what we are not doing well. A lot of it is long-term care – we are not naive to think we can turn everyone around in 12 weeks. Our goal is not to get them into their first job as a job for life, but for a starting job, and get them ready for a career path, not just a job for life.”
Since 2000, Café Reconcile has trained more than 900 young adults interested in the hospitality industry. The program offers three weeks of life skills classroom training; five weeks of cafe training where students learn 10 positions in the cafe; and four weeks of on-site restaurant training with a program partner.
On a recent afternoon at 2 p.m., crowds were still placing orders for Café Reconcile’s Creole soul food. Trainees were bustling around – taking and placing orders, waiting in the kitchen line for plated food or cleaning tables.
“I think it’s comparable to any other restaurant,” Sam Oliver, a diner who was eating a shrimp po-boy. “They have the most amazing blue cheese dressing.”
Ronnie Caldwell, 17, a graduate trainer working on his GED, said he had dropped out of school and had been in jail when he joined the program three months ago. He says it is more than cooking; it’s learning life skills and how to treat others.
“It’s made me productive and taught me skills,” Caldwell said. “Every day, I receive words of encouragement. It’s helped me ‘reconcile’ my life. ... I hope I can continue to do what I like to do and be a waiter, chef or cook and stay on the right track and succeed. I’ve come a long way and know I can change. It’s not hard to change.”
“I saw the opportunity to grow and learn from other people,” said student and high school graduate Devante Lee, 19. “I saw it as humbling – teachers taking pay cuts to be here. They showed me so much and are caring that I want to give them my all and more.”
Armantrout continues to be overwhelmed by the stories and success of some of the young adults who come to the program.
“You put them in an environment where you can earn their respect, and they skyrocket,” Armantrout said. “It’s amazing how they react to positive attention. They know when it is genuine. That’s the simple recipe we work off of. ... We try to open their minds, to rearrange how they think. Every single moment we have with them is a teachable moment.”
He said something as simple as cutting a piece of French bread can be turned into a discussion about relationships and how they need care and work.
Café Reconcile also has been selected by the National Restaurant Association to pilot a program for at-risk youth.
Beyond Central City
Armantrout envisions offering tenets of Reconcile New Orleans off-site by certifying teachers in high school to teach it and offering it to partners in the food service industry for their employees.
“We want to start piloting our life-skills class remotely at other locations,” he said. “We would like to reach 1,000 kids a year through our life skills program.”
Visit reconcileneworleans.org or call 568-1157. Café Reconcile is open weekdays for lunch from 11-2:30 p.m.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.