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Tachos, brownies and cookies were disappearing fast as a houseful of high school invitees at a March 5 Teen Taster sampled some of the youth-friendly fare they will find at Curt’s Café South, 1813 Dempster St., when it opens after an “Open House-Warming” on March 22.
The café, a short walk away from Evanston Township High School, is a sister to the original Curt’s Café founded by Susan Trieschmann at 2922 Central St. In her work with Restorative Justice, Ms. Trieschmann had seen hopeless young people trapped in the juvenile justice system because a lack of skills and support made them unemployable. Most were also dealing with homelessness or addiction.
Using her extensive experience in food service, she devised a fix: a café and education program she called Cultivating Unique Restaurant Training. Centered on the needs of mostly male students, Curt’s Café quickly became a gathering spot for community coffee klatches, meetings and after-hours events. Captivated by the cause, a loyal clientele provides donations and volunteers that help power the program – and register receipts that cover 70% of the cost.
Now it is the girls’ turn. Like its three-year-old brother, Curt’s South will train young people – in this case, teen moms and at-risk girls – in food service and life skills to prepare them for good jobs and parenting.
Four girls at a time will be enrolled. Djorgy Leroy, a probation officer who sits on the café board, will likely identify many. “He brings the kids, and it’s like they’re his own kids,” says Karen Smith, who as general manager oversees both venues.
Participants complete a General Equivalency Degree and food service certificate before leaving the program. Training lasts as long as that takes. Because the program is “adapted to the individual,” says Lori Dube, director of community relations at Curt’s North and a member of the opening team for South, “some students are in and out for a year. They come back for the love,” she says.
The selection process exemplifies the program’s philosophy of generosity and respect. Ms. Trieschmann says she does not ask what potential students have done. Nor, she says, does she ask them to lie – to say they are going to change their lives. She merely asks them if they are “ready to try.” She points to herself – always going on a diet and always failing. “But every day I wake up ready to try again,” she says.
The girls will bring different energy and issues to Curt’s South. Their curriculum will be tailored to the challenges teen girls and mothers face. They are “not my demographic,” Ms. Trieschmann admits, which means she is avidly learning from those who serve a similar population.
Like their male counterparts, the girls will hone food skills in the morning. In the “back of the house” they will help make South’s lighter, healthier cuisine, like salads, smoothies, and quinoa bowls. Besides reinforcing the teen moms’ health, nutrition and exercise education, the lighter fare should be a draw for ETHS students and others looking for a mellow place to lunch.
Rebecca Parmet will likely be managing Curt’s South, helping the students polish front-of-the-house customer service and light baking skills, as she does at North. “The best part is having an experienced student help a new one,” she says. With a nod to a beaming DeVonte Steward, who now trains the bakers of chocolate chip cookies, she adds, “That’s how they learn best – teaching.”
In addition, though the Dempster Street facility lacks a full kitchen, Ms. Trieschmann has cooked up a mutually beneficial relationship with a couple who know the restaurant business firsthand.
Malaika Marion, an ETHS graduate, and Adam Lebin closed the doors of Brown Sack, their successful Logan Square sandwich shop, last fall after connecting with Ms. Trieschmann and her mission. They will be working with the students on “comfort food” from the crockpot, Ms. Trieschmann says. Evenings, after the café closes, they will operate their new for-profit restaurant, Heavenston, in the café space.
Ms. Dube says in addition to studies and tutoring for their degrees and certificates, students will have afternoon classes in parent bonding, art expression, nutrition, and exercise. They will meet as a book club with the guidance of Literature for All of Us, a decades-old leader in empowering young women. Mr. Leroy and other professional social workers, some from Heartwood across the street, will help the girls untangle their complex life problems.
Ms. Dube says she staged the Teen Taster “to get a buzz going at ETHS.” Teen Hour at the café, from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, will feature snacks like the trendy nacho/Tater Tot mix called tachos and occasional entertainment coordinated by an ETHS student and called Curt’s Collab.
The staff of Curt’s South is also looking to infuse the freshly painted, cheerful space with what Ms. Dube calls “grandmother energy.” To that end, they have recruited a mahjong teacher and several tables of players.
As at North, where 30 volunteers do everything from tutoring and mentoring to administration and baking, Curt’s South is expecting to operate with both staff and volunteers.
Statistics bear out Curt’s success. Sixty-eight students have completed the program. One is back in prison and two are awaiting court appearances for parole violations. The others are employed and keep in touch, Ms. Trieschmann says. Without a Curt’s, she says, “We know in one year, 48% would be back in prison. In three years, 86% would.”
Since hiring Ms. Smith as general manager, Ms. Trieschmann is able to spend more time writing grants – and is able, says, to “step out, do growth and outreach, and spread the mission, spread the love,” Ms. Smith says.
The love is nowhere more evident than in the tribute DeVonte delivered on a recent TV program honoring Ms. Trieschmann. “We’re not just making food,” he said. “We’re making dreams for our futures.”