Ezekiel's Cafe

By Eleanor J. Bader

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 216 cover

New York's Greenwich Avenue looks like most other commercial strips in tony Greenwich Village. Fancy boutiques, restaurants and book stores line both sides of the street and visitors get the distinct impression that they have just entered an upscale heaven. Fragrant odors—freshly made cappuccinos, espressos and lattes—waft from cafes as well-dressed patrons scurry from store to store in search of available treasures.

In the midst of all the hubbub, a tiny restaurant named Ezekiel's stands out. Although it looks like every other bistro in the area, it is actually very different from the businesses that surround it. Run by Covenant House, Ezekiel's opened in May 1997 as a pilot training program for homeless, or near-homeless, youth.

Covenant House was started in l969 and has grown to become the largest shelter program for homeless children in the Americas. In l996 alone, more than 13,000 young people in Canada, Honduras, Mexico and the United States were placed in its short-term shelters or transitional living centers, and another 88,000 kids from across the U.S. received telephone counseling via the Nineline hotline. That same year, the group provided non-residential services—health care, vocational or high school equivalency classes, legal services, pastoral counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, street outreach, recreational programs, and crisis intervention—to more than 44,000 American youth. The group's mission statement pledges Covenant House "to serve suffering children of the street, and to protect and safeguard all children."

Ezekiel's sees itself as a small step in the "service" of poorly educated, low income youth in New York City. It is a tiny piece of Covenant House's Regional Training Center, which provides vocational and high school equivalency classes to about 250 youth a day. The cafe's first class—of eight students—began in mid-October. "From the time we opened the cafe in May until October all of the training was done on the job," says Neil Kleinberg, Ezekiel's chef and educational coordinator. "In October we began the first classroom-based training cycle, two days in class, one day at the cafe. This went on for 14 weeks, to be followed by 15 weeks of on-the-job training exclusively at Ezekiel's. It's a full nine-month program."

Formal classes led by Kleinberg include training in food identification and preparation, knife skills, customer service, hygiene and sanitation, use of herbs and spices, budgeting, ordering food and supplies, pastry making, recipe reading, and analysis and conversion of measurements. Students completing the program will earn a New York State Food Handler's Certificate, and will be prepared to pursue a full degree in the culinary arts or hotel/food service management.

"I grew up in Brooklyn and went through the public school system," Kleinberg says. Once the head chef at Lundy's, a famous Brooklyn eatery, and the former owner of several high-end restaurants, Kleinberg finds teaching and working with struggling kids enormously appealing. "I was very privileged to find New York Tech, a college my parents could afford," he says. "They couldn't afford Cornell or the Culinary Institute of America, so for me, New York Tech was like going to Harvard. It gave me a chance to do what I'd always wanted to do. That's why I can really relate to being given a chance. At Ezekiel's I can give back what I've learned, what I've been taught, to kids interested in food."

"Our goal in starting Ezekiel's was to create small, manageable training programs in industries that are tied to real jobs," adds Ellen O'Connell, Director of Covenant House's Regional Training Center and instigator of the cafe. "Last year's welfare reform has had a big impact on our kids. The lifetime cap on benefits—if you start getting benefits at 19 you can conceivably use them up by the time you're 24—means that we had to do more career-oriented education." At the same time, O'Connell has had to contend with the fact that many of the people who come into Covenant House have already failed in traditional classroom environments. In fact, a full 50% of all Covenant House participants are high school dropouts and many are functionally illiterate.

"We decided on culinary arts for a few reasons," she continues. "In most industries there's only so far you can advance without a college degree. But that's not true in the food service industry. In food services you don't necessarily need a college degree, or even a high school diploma, to find work. Plus, the hours are good. Restaurants are open during the day as well as at night, so there's flexibility for people who have kids, are in school, or have other family or life obligations. In addition, food services training is tangible. It's real. When a young person goes into the classroom to start cooking and something comes out of the oven, it's fun. It's hard work, but it's creative. And there's a very real connection to a very real job market."

Rachel White, a 21-year-old Ezekiel's staffer who is in the program's first class, expresses excitement at the prospect of a culinary career. "I've had a lot of jobs," she says, "in data entry, as a receptionist, and in sales, but this is different, more satisfying. The cafe is small. I get to know the customers. They ask about your day, how you are, because you see each other every day. Plus, we're selling good food. It's not overpriced and I feel really proud that people can come in here and get their money's worth."

Indeed. On a typical day the menu includes herbed chicken salad with french beans, red grapes and roasted almonds; cous cous with a chiffanade of raw spinach and feta cheese; roasted seasonal vegetables with basil and balsamic vinegar; and Asian vegetable slaw—all reasonably priced. Pastries are baked on the premises and a wide range of soft drinks, fresh-squeezed juices, and coffees and teas are available at market rates. Ezekiel's does not have a freezer so all of the food is made fresh each day using products purchased from a local green market run by upstate New York farmers.

"Over the past three months, we've taken in an average of $13,350 a month," says O'Connell, "which represents a monthly net of around $9,000 or $10,000." Net revenues pay staff salaries, and provide $5.75 an hour to students enrolled in the program. All told, O'Connell continues, Ezekiel's operating budget for l997-98 is $300,000. Covenant House provided $150,000 in start-up capital and grants from Campbell's soup, Consolidated Edison, and the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development provided the rest of the first year's funding. Within three years, the cafe hopes to break even.

Although Ezekiel's is admittedly a small program that can only make a small dent in addressing the larger social and economic problems facing low-income youth, O'Connell and Kleinberg believe that starting small is key to the cafe's success. "Small classes allow us to deal with whatever is going on for the student," says O'Connell. "If there's a reading disability, or emotional problems, or if the person has low self-esteem as a result of being homeless, this allows us to zero in, pay attention, and deal with it. Rather than a big program where the individual gets lost, we'd rather have a smaller, higher quality program that meets people's needs."

"Ezekiel's has exceeded all of my expectations," Kleinberg enthusiastically concludes. "I'm amazed. Sure, the kids need direction and have problems, but they're loving it. We have a really good, thriving business here. People come in and find great food, friendly people and nice music. When we opened in May we knew that it would take us a while to get going, that we'd need a foundation to build on. Well I'm happy to tell you, we now have that foundation."

Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer and teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ezekiel's Cafe is located at 52 Greenwich Ave.; 212-741-6639.
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