Walking down Dryades Street as it turns onto Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City is like roaming through a ghost town. On one block, abandoned storefronts line the roadway like skeletons. A block over, there is an empty parking lot with “Peace and Love” spray painted in red on its side fence. For years, Central City has been plagued with crime and poverty, offering little hope to the children that grew up within its grasp. However, Café Reconcile, a non-profit organization and restaurant geared towards helping at-risk teens find jobs in the restaurant business, provides an opportunity for a fresh start.
Spirituality and a commitment to service are core values held by the upper management of Café Reconcile. Pamela Broome, one of the founding members of the Café Reconcile non-profit organization, expressed the importance of teaching young people valuable life lessons. “Café Reconcile started as a more of a crash course on the different parts that make up the food service industry. But our strength in our early years was giving these kids constructive strategies on how to deal with life challenges. Once we had more resources and equipment, the food-service program expanded; that’s great, but we make sure students learn to persevere and give back.”
The 1990s was an especially difficult time for Central City and the greater New Orleans area. The city was saturated with violence, scarred with the highest murder rate in the United States during most of the decade. Craig Cuccia, a former businessman, recognized the crisis facing New Orleans and decided to be proactive in finding a solution. Cuccia, after his time working in oil, experienced a spiritual awakening, and during a Catholic Convention in front of thousands, he dedicated his life to the betterment of others. This mission brought forth the idea of Café Reconcile, an organization that could provide teens with job skills, as well as life skills needed to break the cycle of poverty in the neighborhood.
Students who enrolled in Café Reconcile are usually those that struggled in a traditional high school setting but still wanted to get ahead. “It was actually my third year taking my senior year of high school when I found out about Café Reconcile,” stated Edward, a Café Reconcile alumnus, “and my best friend who went through the program in August of 2014 told me how great it was. I saw how it changed his life, and I was just getting my life back on track. So, when I graduated high school in May of 2015, I enrolled in the program August of 2015 and the rest is it.” Edward wore the tattoos on his arms with pride and looked everybody directly in the eyes when he spoke. He knew exactly where he came from and where he was going
Edward experienced character building emphasized by the founders of Café Reconcile during his time in the program. Group activities started in the morning every day before students began work in the restaurant. “A typical day starts with word of the day. We choose a word of the day and talk about it. One of the words can be reconcile. A lot of the students didn’t know what reconcile meant, I didn’t know what reconcile meant. And just for them to talk about reconcile, honor, morals, values, all those words help us figure out what we need to do in life…students also practice the why-try model which teaches people how to deal with things in their personal life as well as their professional life.”
To build Café Reconcile into the thriving program it is today, dedicated people needed to work extremely hard to give future students like Edward a chance to recover their lives. Cuccia’s dream had to start somewhere, and at the time Central City was a place that needed dreamers. Cuccia bought an abandoned warehouse in the most impoverished part of Central City and turned the building into Café Reconcile. “In 1996, we spent about $50,000 or so, I can’t remember exactly, on a five-story building that would probably cost double today. The property was cheap because the city was hoping businesses would be intrigued to buy, even though at the time the location was in a bad neighborhood. We took it because that was where we needed to be. We needed to be established where teens had access to the help we were trying to provide,” explained Lisa LeFleur, program director of Café Reconcile.
The red brick building Café Reconcile calls home stands strong and proud. Inside, intoxicating smells of catfish and gumbo tingle the senses, and the artwork hanging on the exposed brick explode with color. Walking around the first-floor dining area, among the bustle of students preparing for the busy lunch schedule ahead, you can feel the faint pulse of a city once pronounced dead.
In the early years of the organization, Café Reconcile served as a soup kitchen and thrift store for members of the community. It was not until 2008 when the full vision of Café Reconcile was realized. With funding from celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and John Besh, as well as other local businesses, Café Reconcile had the capital to expand the services it provided to its students. The Café grew into a culinary school and restaurant, with over 1,000 students successfully completing the 11-week program that taught skills needed for employment in the food service industry. In addition to service skills, students also learned how to budget their time and money, and how to apply for jobs online.
The model used by Café Reconcile to prepare students for their careers and life moving forward has proven successful. Many alumni, such as Edward, who now have jobs in the food service industry, come back to serve as mentors for a new crop of students. “I go downstairs and see what they’re doing, and wherever I can lend a hand I’ll do it,” says Edward. “At the end of the day I help students out with resumes and cover letters and help them find jobs.” Edward is an excellent role model for the students because he successfully turned what he learned from Café Reconcile into a job. “I work at Palace Café on Canal Street. I started out as a busser, moved up to server, and now I am captain over there. I am actually the youngest captain over there right now.”
The administration is proud of their student’s accomplishments and hopes to continue progressing as an organization. “This program has seen a great deal of success and we hope to build upon it. Even though businesses are getting rich from tourism, there are a lot of locals being left behind. We don’t want our students to be left behind,” said program director LeFleur.
The backbone of the New Orleans economy is the services and hospitality industry. The diverse cuisine offered by New Orleans, along with its unique cultural significance has made New Orleans a popular spot for visitors. In 2011, leisure and hospitality businesses accounted for over 75,000 jobs in the greater New Orleans area. Additionally, over 10 million tourists visited New Orleans in 2017 alone, making it one of the top travel destinations in the United States, not to mention getting named the number 1 place to visit for 2018 by The New York Times. Café Reconcile has capitalized on the money being pumped in from the healthy pockets of visitors and is providing young men and women with the tools they need to fill jobs in the service industry and adapt to the diverse menu items offered in restaurants.
Café Reconcile has also invested in the future of their students by adding modern kitchen equipment and keeping up to date with the latest techniques in food preparation and hospitality. Additionally, Café Reconcile is open to the public for lunch five days a week, giving the students in the program a chance to hone their skills in food preparation and service. The program understands that developing skills for the industry is important, but an emphasis is also put on life skills that work on forming productive habits. Students focus on soft skills in the first few weeks of the course to make themselves more employable. These skills include: being on time, focusing, following directions, and maintaining a positive attitude. Although the tenets seem simple, they have faithfully served the graduates of Café Reconcile beyond the restaurant business, and into the real world.
The program seeks to help as many at-risk teens as possible; however, there are many obstacles that may discourage teens from enrolling. One main issue administrators found to be a common problem for students was transportation. The program now provides bus fare for students to travel to and from the program, as well as a full breakfast and lunch every day — a blessing for many students who can’t afford filling meals. Even though the program isn’t reaching everyone, the lives it touches are changed. For Edward, “Café Reconcile got me back on my feet and opened a lot of doors for me. I am very thankful.”
David Perkins is a senior at Tulane University studying History