Executive director Susan Trieschmann, right, stands with staff and trainees at Curt’s Café. The new Central Street cafe is the site of a three-month  program that teaches at-risk youth food service and life skills. RoundTable photo

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The beverages and baked goods are tempting, the décor inviting. Curt’s Café, which opened April 23 at 2922 Central St., hopes to become a home away from home for customers and neighbors, says executive director Susan Trieschmann.

 But its aspirations for the young people in training at the café – many of them lacking a real home or a permanent address – are much higher. 

Along with good food in a comfortable space, Curt’s Café serves up good portions of hope and opportunity
for at-risk Evanston youth.

“We’re providing something else besides good food and a comfortable space: We’re also serving up good portions of hope and opportunity,” reads the brochure called “The Curt’s Café Story.”

A three-month program designed to teach food service and life skills to at-risk Evanston youth aged 15-24 is the focus of this non-profit enterprise. Headed by Ms. Trieschmann and a board of directors, it also boasts a growing roster of volunteers.

The training program will immerse participants in four disciplines whose titles spell the acronym LIFE. “L,” Life Skills, will cover anger-management techniques as well as practical information on subjects like how to open a bank account. Under “I,” Intellectual Skills, is the expectation that all trainees be working toward graduation or GED certification and that all afternoons will be spent attending volunteer-led math tutorials and an evolving menu of informal classes like the current “History of Food.”

They will learn barrista and waiter skills and work toward a food service sanitation certificate while pursuing the “F” discipline, Food Service. The “E” strand – Experiential – will expose kids to “life outside Evanston,” she says, and to real-world competencies for problem solving. Activities may include a trip to the coffee roaster in Saugatuck, Mich., an el ride to a baseball game or an impromptu lesson on how to fix a light plug. “Every minute is a learning minute,” says Ms. Trieschmann.

Four trainees at a time will cycle through the program. They are expected to be on the job from 7 a.m. till 3 p.m. five days a week, devoting six hours a day to food service in the café and two hours to research and study in the adjacent room. Students still in high school will cover weekend shifts; three paid staff mentors will be present at all times, Ms. Trieschmann says.

Work is almost complete on the kitchen where trainees will learn to make simple, healthy (“but good,” she adds) soups, sandwiches and salads. It is the very space where Ms. Trieschmann started her long career in food service. She is returning as the owner of the building with a quarter century’s worth of experience.

She was 25 and her sister and brother-in-law 27 and 28 when they founded the Food for Thought catering business at this address. The trio showed up for their first event pushing a van that had stalled in transit, she says; they used their tips to pay the cab fare home. Tips proliferated in the subsequent 25 years, as Ms. Trieschmann and her partners grew Food for Thought into a company with 20 restaurants and revenues of $20 million. The venture supported “four kids and two marriages,” she says – her own and her sibling’s – until the untimely death of her business partner/brother-in-law led Ms. Trieschmann to reevaluate and seek change in her life.

 Temporarily shelving her enthusiasm for food, she sold the company to her sister and entered college for the first time. “I loved going as a mature woman,” she says. Along the way, she discovered her second passion, the desire to help young people that became a key ingredient in her recipe for Curt’s Café.

Underlying the café and its mission is Ms. Triesch-mann’s experience with the Restorative Justice program in Evanston. She cofounded RJE, which gathers victim, offender and family into a circle to listen and talk. The offender explains his reasons for doing harm and then works with the victim to determine a way to make amends.

Ms. Trieschmann says the circles, rooted in Native American and African American philosophy, are “magic.” The RJE program is active both at Evanston Township High School and at the Evanston Police Department, where it has had an astounding 98 percent success rate, she says.

But she was concerned about the 2 percent who re-offend. She says she heard too many young people say, “It doesn’t matter” – a message of hopelessness that emanates from their homes. At the café, she says, “We’re about respect and integrity.”

Ms. Trieschmann identified the first group of trainees with the help of RJ connections in the parole office and Youth Job Center. A week after the café opening they are “struggling with getting here on time – or at all,” she says. But she can already point to one success story – a young man she expects “will be ready for a junior management position after one month.”

She picked the café location when the owner of Casteel Coffee decided to close, vacating a storefront and the large room next door. When Ms. Trieschmann had no response to her “For Rent” sign, she decided to take both spaces in spite of the price. “I hit the big dream early,” she says. She owns the building and expects to get a boost from renting the room after café hours. And because her business plan showed from the outset that the café was not “financially sound,” she says, she knows she must count on monetary and in-kind donations as well as volunteer help for the first few years.

Nights, she is also renting out the kitchen while realizing her goal of mentoring an incubating restaurant. She hopes to help the owners steer clear of the 97 percent rate at which restaurants fail – especially since the three owners of “Just 8” pizza and cookie business are her 23-year-old son and two of his ETHS friends.

Ms. Trieschmann says she first resisted the impulse to name the café for her brother-in-law, whose death is still “a sensitive subject for the family.” But the meaning of the name Curt, “courteous, bold, wise counselor,” was persuasive, and CURT fit as an acronym for “Cultivating Unique Restaurant Training.” In the end, she says, Curt’s Café just felt “right in every way.”