A Second Helping of Second-Chance Cafes

New Orleans, LA –

Restaurant kitchen staff have to be on task to produce great dishes, and there's a discipline to following even basic house recipes. In the dining room, the social interactions come fast and furious, from greeting and serving customers to working with colleagues and managers.

In short, it takes teamwork, dependability and hard work to run a restaurant. That's one reason why the setting works so well for helping young people in need get their lives on track.

Restaurant as life-skills-training-center is the basic operating principle of Cafe Reconcile, a nonprofit teaching restaurant in Central City -- and it's an idea that is spreading. Last month, Liberty's Kitchen opened for business in Mid-City -- serving meals to the public while employing and training at-risk youth -- and plans are underway for a similar operation called Cafe Hope in Marrero.

Each is an independent organization, but all are based around a model pioneered in New Orleans by Cafe Reconcile. Since first opening in 2000, the cafe has recruited hundreds of young people who found themselves in trouble at school, with the law or on the streets, and given them a second chance toward productive lives. They get training in hands-on, task-oriented jobs in the kitchen, build confidence by putting people skills to the test each day and experience the pride of a job well done. They get paid, get marketable job experience and get help with job placement or returning to school after their time at the cafe.

The hungry dining public supports these efforts by showing up and ordering a meal, and now there are more opportunities to do just that.

Liberty's Kitchen was founded by Janet Davas, a former Cafe Reconcile administrator, and Reggie Davis, a former Cafe Reconcile chef. Its location close to the criminal courthouse at Tulane and Broad is no coincidence, since Liberty's Kitchen is out to serve youth who have had early brushes with the juvenile justice system. Starbucks Coffee donated a suite of equipment, so the restaurant also functions as a coffeehouse serving the popular national brand.

Meanwhile, on the West Bank, plans are taking shape for Cafe Hope, a nonprofit led by yet another Cafe Reconcile alum. Don Boyd was chef at Cafe Reconcile for years, and he's now working with Catholic Charities to start Cafe Hope in the Madonna Manor building, part of the historic Hope Haven campus in Marrero.

Boyd is now busy fundraising and building community partnerships for the cafe, which he hopes to open to the public in September. It will use a familiar program of mentoring, life-skills coaching and on-the-job training. He also intends to use some of the Hope Haven grounds to develop a restaurant garden, where vegetables nurtured by Cafe Hope youth will end up in the meals they prepare and serve.

That means eventually the West Bank will have a casual restaurant for farm-to-table food. But most importantly, together with Liberty's Kitchen and Cafe Reconcile, it will also mean another opportunity to make a difference just by dining out.

Cafe Hope
1101 Barataria Blvd., Marrero
Projected opening in September 2009
E-mail Don Boyd at

Cafe Reconcile
1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., New Orleans, 504-568-1157
Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Liberty's Kitchen
422 1/2 S. Broad St., New Orleans, 504-822-4011
Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (kitchen closes at 2 p.m.)