On menu at Boulder’s Naropa: food service by ex-homeless
January 17, 2016
LONGMONT, Colo. — Two and a half years ago, Community Table Kitchen, a Boulder food service staffed by the formerly homeless, was preparing about 120 plates a day for the city's most needy. Word of mouth slowly brought some catering opportunities at the occasional church or University of Colorado event and later for a few corporate functions.
Now, in addition to the 400 meals it serves daily to the homeless, a steady stream of new and repeat customers present multiple new jobs each month. In December, Community Table Kitchen scored its first regular gig: a small espresso booth inside Audi's Boulder showroom.
But the program's biggest coup to date is a contract with Naropa University to be the school's food-service provider. Starting Monday, the cafes at the school's three Boulder campuses will be staffed by ex-homeless clients of Bridge House's Ready to Work program.
"It shows a lot about respect for the Community Table," said the once-homeless James Halapeska. "That they trust us with the responsibility — we appreciate that a lot."
Naropa President Chuck Lief is a board member at Bridge House and previously worked to support low-income housing in New York. Hiring Community Table Kitchen was his idea, and, in his words, a deliberate effort to force students and faculty to interface daily with a population largely hidden from view.
"I think there's nothing wrong when janitorial or custodial businesses hire homeless people, but it's a very different effect when they go into a building at 11 at night and work until dawn," he said. "But my experience is that people who are homeless or at risk are stigmatized.
Recommended Stories For You
"I think of this as an opportunity to not just provide some financial support to Bridge House to enable them to do the work, but also to allow our community to engage with people who frankly are very much like them but happen to be experiencing homelessness."
Working to erase stigma
Bridge House staff often lament what they see as a pervasive and damaging stereotype of the homeless — Ready to Work supervisor Widd Medford calls it "the guy with a Santa Claus beard flashing a sign" — and its clientele hopes the Naropa contract will help debunk the unproductive myth.
"When we cater, you see these people dressed professionally, and you don't think of them as homeless," said Sean Hammond, who was homeless for eight years and will now manage the café at the university's main campus on Arapahoe Avenue.
"Afterward, you might see them walking away and wonder if that's really the same person. It's kind of hard to get beyond that stigma, but we are doing the best we can to try to change that perspective."
Of course, one way to change minds is simply to make good food.
Naropa's cafes will serve coffee, tea and a mix of prepared and fresh items. Among the first menu's features are pineapple slaw, homemade chips, Vietnamese noodles and a slew of fresh-baked pastries.
"Hopefully, we can get our name into the community and show what we can do," said the formerly homeless Nessa Meadows. "Which is cater awesome food."
She and several others cooking in the kitchen beamed while discussing the opportunity Ready to Work has provided.
"Sometimes, those of us (who) are poor don't have a bootstrap to pull up from," she said. "That's what this is: a bootstrap to hold onto to get going again."
Independent restaurant not ruled out
Community Table Kitchen Executive Chef John Trejo offered a similar view and bristled at the notion that the program is purely charitable.
"We'll meet them halfway," he said. "It's a hand up, not a handout."
Ready to Work employees live at Bridge House's employment and housing center on Table Mesa Drive, which opened in August with the goal of offering roughly yearlong terms to homeless people who work either for the program's food services or landscaping crews.
They're paid minimum wage at first and then get slight raises upon completion of a job-training course. Staff then assists as they seek housing and full-time jobs outside the program. A few clients, like Hammond, have been brought on for full-time roles that may become more available as Ready-to-Work continues expanding.
Trejo didn't rule out Community Table Kitchen opening its own restaurant someday. But having only just secured its first contracts with Audi and Naropa, the program isn't thinking that big yet.
"We would love to take on more projects and operate more businesses where we're in control, where it's our name and our product," he said. "But so far, we're doing pretty good."