Susan Trieschmann founded Chicago catering company Food for Thought, which eventually grew to $25 million in revenues. But it was a smaller Evanston venture that changed her focus from corporate entrepreneurship to social entrepreneurship. In 2012 she started Curt’s Cafe, which has made nowhere near that much in sales but has given hundreds of young people, three-quarters of whom were once incarcerated, guidance and vital job experience.
“No one wanted to pick up this age group,” she said. “So I mortgaged my house to do it – and I decided to give it a try.” Trieschmann partnered with another Evanstonian, Lori Dube, to raise additional funds and open the cafe. “It went on from there – fastest 10 years of my life. It was fast because every day was something new.”
But now, after a decade of teaching restaurant and life skills to 500 young people as the cafe’s executive director, she is leaving the cafe later this year.
The idea for Curt’s came to Trieschmann when she accidentally enrolled in a social justice course while working on a business degree. She stuck with the course, though as a successful business leader who hadn’t ever worked in the nonprofit sector, the subject matter was foreign.
She said that while she was in the class the concept of restorative justice, which seeks to restore wholeness to victims and offenders, spoke to her.
“As my final exam they sent me to the prison to do youth circles – they sent me there to see it really working,” she recalled. “It was a life-changing situation. Watching young men speak from their hearts. … Everyone in there was a gang member from different gangs, but they would find this language, a peaceful language between them and then they would speak so honestly. They don’t speak like that in prison, never. You never talk about fear, you never talk about your family. You just don’t do it – and they did. I was in awe.”
Trieschmann learned there was a dearth of support for 15- to 24-year-old males coming out of prison. Tapping into her entrepreneurial experience, she wrote a business plan to raise funding for a program, but found little interest. So Trieschmann and Dube did it anyway.
Pointing to the success of the cafe’s work, Trieschmann credits the incarcerated youth she learned from before opening the cafe.
She said they asked her for two things, which became her goals: jobs and a place where they would feel accepted and welcomed. Trieschmann is proud that Curt’s has provided exactly that by offering jobs and training, creating a supportive environment and helping with other challenges they face.
She said that Curt’s has been successful in gathering much of the Evanston community around the organization, including customers that share the belief that all kids matter, regardless of their past.
Trieschmann said that only 4% of Curt’s “graduates” have returned to prison, compared with state and national recidivism rates that she said are above 80%. She is especially proud that some Curt’s alumni are now in positions of leadership at the cafe and says they will lead the cafe’s vision for the future.
One graduate the cafe has hired drives students to appointments at other support organizations, like the Moran Center, and mentors them while driving. A current student at the cafe also serves as a mentor, she said. “He’s just about done everything you could do to get into trouble, so he can really speak about coming from where they’ve come from,” Trieschmann said. “He can say, ‘Look at what I’m doing now. I’m driving this van and I’ve got a job as a manager at the restaurant and my family has a nice apartment now.’ He can really speak to the students in a way that I never could. It’s really powerful.”
Running the cafe, Trieschmann said, has made her more empathetic, helped her understand how complex participants’ trauma is and led to strong social work and counseling components. “Our students have been so traumatized. We have full-time clinical social workers to support our students and every student has to meet with them. They won’t make it without having that support.”
Trieschmann has experienced her own trauma from having students and graduates die from violence over the last 10 years. “You can’t just say, ‘It’s all right, another student.’ I mean, they’re people. Every single one of them has overcome so much, so much – hurdles most of us would never be able to jump over ever – and they did it. Then somebody guns them down,” Trieschmann said.
“It’s like, I don’t know how to sit with that stuff. I’m a woman of faith and I can pray all I want, but you can’t keep piling dead children on a person’s mind and have them think it’s gonna be OK, because it’s not. I feel bad I can’t do more. That’s been my learning curve.”
She also said that part of what she will take with her is disappointment that society doesn’t do more.
“I’ve become bitter,” she said. “I think I walk into things with my eyes wide open, where I used to be pretty pollyanna about them. Before, every day was a lovely day.
“I’m just mad that it keeps happening. I’m so angry sometimes. I’ve realized the depth of what we do to children, what we allow to be done to children. The depth. It’s not the incidents, those happen to everybody. It’s the depth, that we just let it continue to happen.
“I can’t even believe we live in a society like this. No one even talks about it, except in a three-minute NPR clip. We don’t talk about it over dinner tables, we don’t talk about solutions to the problem. Someone with more smarts than me should figure this one out.”
She said that young people should not be released from prison without support. “You literally let a kid out of prison, a kid, with only a bus card. You walk them out the door, whether or not they know when the bus is coming. They get out with one bus card and no money. I was once there [at prison] picking up a kid at 2:30 in the morning.”
Trieschmann said that the bus cards Evanston youth are given when they are released will only get them to downtown Chicago. “Why would you release an Evanston kid in the middle of Chicago? Where does he go when he gets off the bus in the middle of Chicago at 2:30 in the morning? These are things that can be fixed. … These things are very fixable and still 10 years later nothing has changed.”
As Trieschmann prepares to leave Curt’s, she said she’s asking that people continue to support it in the way they have as the next leader comes on board, so that there is a smooth transition; that they continue to share the stories they hear through Curt’s; and that they understand the depth of what people go through in the community.
Trieschmann, 64, said she doesn’t want to retire. She’s thought about looking for opportunities to work for a philanthropic organization and has talked about starting another business with two other women that could also benefit youth.
She said she is grateful for the trust that people put in her. “I don’t know that I was worthy of that trust, but people kept trusting me,” she said. “They’ve trusted that I would be a good steward with their money. They trusted that our program would be safe in the community that we are in.
“I will forever be grateful.”