Earning While Learning
I settle in to my corner nook to watch the evening unfold. In a booth to my left, glasses are polished and napkins folded. Around the room salt shakers are filled and water pitchers readied. The mirrors are freshly Windexed and nervous energy expended as tables, candles, and silverware are nudged into perfect position. These kids are pros.
Soon the restaurant is full, the candles flicker against smiles and the jazz carries us as the servers bustle. The busy escalates and even the GM is rolling up his sleeves to serve, happily. It's a family, for sure, and everyone's got each other's backs.
Anytime you are in or near San Francisco, please make plans to visit Old Skool. Everyone will take good care of you and I promise you will leave plenty inspired.
The restaurant will be celebrating its fifth birthday in April 2017! And there's a lot to celebrate: So far 92 percent of Old Skool kids have earned high school diplomas and 94 percent are employed or focused solely on school, including thirteen now attending college. Twenty-five youth are currently employed at Old Skool, with another thirty in training each year.
It's especially interesting to me that the youth really do RUN the restaurant. They do everything: Hosting, serving, bussing, cooking, plating, cleaning, ordering, managing...and caring for one another. Before the shift starts, Chef serves a vegetable soup for family meal and then everyone circles up in the dining room. The GM asks, "What was the highlight of your day?" and everyone must answer.
About two-thirds of the answers were, "The best thing about my day was coming here, to work."
Food As Good As The Mission
We start with Taumepaw Ota—a delicious, creamy fish ceviche served with tortilla chips. Like many of the dishes on the Old Skool menu, the ota is a family recipe contributed by the youth staff. In this way, the menu doubles as family legacy; reflecting the rich heritage that each youth brings to the table. Tammy’s mother taught the chefs how to make it just a year before her life-ending battle with cancer.
Next, Chef Sam sends out the most amazing rib I have ever had—no exaggeration. I’m talking fall-off-the-bone perfection with smoky, chipotle sauce over zingy coleslaw. I ate it embarrassingly fast and the sweet girls hosting me giggle as they take my plate licked clean back to the kitchen.
Lisa Litsey sits opposite me in a vintage, tufted leather booth. She is Old Skool's Managing Director and has been working alongside Founder Teresa Goines for four years now. "Everything here is done with intentionality," she explains. Serving exceptional food is simply the byproduct of the extraordinary young people running the restaurant—they are the heart of it all, and the family-ness of staff is the secret sauce. Each of the staff were referred by probation programs and officers within the juvenile corrections system. At just sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-years-old, these kids already know the immense difficulty of finding employment with a checkbox history.
But it’s that history that bonds them, in many ways. There’s a work ethic and a depth of responsibility that’s obvious with the tone and tenor of the host’s greeting when you walk in the door. They’re hustling hard to finish school and manage the restaurant—and the Old Skool coaches make sure they’ve got the one-on-one support they need to succeed.
The staff is a family, defined by caring relationships, sense of belonging, and honest respect that is intentionally cultivated.
The main dish arrives: Beautiful sweet potato dumplings swimming in a hot chimichurri sauce with portabella mushrooms and smoked dates. The nuance and creativity coming out of the kitchen is as inspiring as the mission of the restaurant itself.
Though plenty full, I can’t say no when a brownie sundae is brought, drizzled in a sort of toffee-caramel sauce and topped with crushed almonds. Totally decadent and devoured. I overhear someone at the large table next to mine say, “The bread pudding is amazing!” and smile, thinking everything about this place is amazing—soulful and significant.
Full body, mind and soul, I walk out onto the street into boombox rap and the smell of weed, quickly remembering where I am—San Francisco’s hurting Hunters Point neighborhood.
Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco
The Brookings Institute says Bayview-Hunters Point is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the city1, while The New York Times says it’s one of the most violent2. Slate calls it outright toxic and forgotten:
"Bayview-Hunters Point is an area with extreme poverty. It was historically a blue-collar black neighborhood on the outskirts of a segregated city. Over the past 50 years, the neighborhood has suffered from high levels of pollution and now contains a superfund site. Many longtime residents have fled the area due to loss of industry, infrastructure and increases in violence. As far back as 1963, James Baldwin documented the marginalization of the community stating, 'this is the San Francisco America pretends does not exist.'"3
It’s a known food desert (with no grocery stores selling fresh food within at least a mile radius) and more than 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line (currently $12,060/year for a single person).
In this landscape, kids grow up battling conditions of poverty, domestic abuse, street violence, drugs and gangs. It's hard to imagine my sweet, smiling server in handcuffs or behind bars, but that's where most of them were prior to a fresh start at Old Skool.
That’s my heart and passion: Helping young people heal at the core, versus punishing them for things they were born into. - Teresa Goines
"A lot of young men had a grandfather or dad that have been incarcerated, and some even had babies that they would dress in gang colors," Teresa explains. "They are born into it. Sometimes all of their family is gang-affiliated, and they're taught that the only way to survive is by selling drugs. It’s normal, so how are they supposed to know differently? And they also feel like they are turning their back on their family if they say 'No, I don’t want be in the gang.'"4
She saw this pattern and reality play out many, many times during her years as a corrections officer. "In San Francisco, it’s $100,000 to incarcerate a young person for a year. For a quarter of that, we can train them, provide counseling and mentorship and employ them. That’s my heart and passion. Helping young people heal at the core, versus punishing them for things they were born into," she says.5
Consistently over the past five years, the recidivism rate for youth at Old Skool Cafe has been just 10 percent, which is stellar compared to the national rate of 76 percent (according to Bureau of Justice Statistics).
Old Skool is uniquely effective though because it's more than just employment; Teresa has created a truly supportive environment—safe and empowering. The kids receive valuable job training and paid work experience in all aspects of the restaurant business. And above and beyond economic opportunity, mentors and coaches enable them to succeed in all aspects of life.
I don’t have a really good support system outside of Old Skool. I'm not really that close with my family. There's a lot of support here; I would say they support me the most. They help me with school a lot. I'm at City College, getting my high school diploma; I’ll be done with that this semester.Melvin SandovalLine CookOld Skool Cafe
Bootstrapping Like A Boss
Rewind fifteen years and Teresa Goines was working as a corrections officer in Los Angeles. After seeing the same kids re-entering the system over and over, she began searching for real, long-term solutions to the root causes of incarceration, violence and poverty.
Knowing many of the most at-risk youth in California’s urban cities were Hispanic, Teresa moved to Mexico to learn Spanish and familiarize herself with the culture. After an immersive learning experience, she moved to San Francisco to run a gang prevention program at a middle school, which eventually led her to work as a family service manager, helping low-income families access services and support.
In 2005, Teresa’s professional experience culminated in a long-term mission to permanently break the cycle of incarceration, giving young people hope, economic opportunities and training in a supportive environment where they could grow emotionally, physically and spiritually. This is Old Skool.
Like most founders, she bootstrapped everything—even piloting the program in her apartment. A year later, her small team hosted 250 people for its first Gala showcasing what a night at the Old Skool Cafe would look like if they could get their own building.
They continued to do pop up events in spaces that Teresa could get for free, and partnered with caterers to serve at events like birthdays, weddings and fundraisers. Adding ‘Signature Gospel Brunches’ to the menu (in partnership with local restaurants) helped their following to grow, and in January of 2011, a church offered them a permanent space, which is where I found myself sampling the best shrimp gumbo of my life.
It's also in that space that I had the pleasure of talking with Kalvin Qian, an exceptionally kind and professional young man who had been with Old Skool for about a year at the time we met.
"If you're here then you brought yourself here. You really have to do it for yourself if you want to work here. Everybody here are hard workers; people with aspirations. I have a lot of respect for the other kids who work here, kids who have it worse off than I do, who are still coming to work every day. I got a lot of respect," Kalvin tells me.
And I can see why.
The Kids These Days (Short-film)
I think every low-income neighborhood should have something like Old Skool because it's for the kids, so it's for the future. I just think it's important. I think there should be more awareness in cities that have violence and crime and stuff about youth-run things to teach kids how to make money legally…giving them a future, something to count on.Kalvin QianServerOld Skool Cafe
1 Bay Area's Five Poorest Areas Show Up In Study. The Mercury News. August 2016.
2 A Neighborhood Is Shaken By A Violent Death. New York Times. August 2011.
3 San Francisco's Forgotten Neighborhood. Slate. April 2014.
4 5 On The Menu At Bayview's Old Skool Cafe: Dinner And Supporting At-Risk Youth. Hoodline. April 2016.
I want to say a very, very sincere 'THANKS!!' to the entire Old Skool family! Specifically to Lisa Litsey, a beautiful soul who hosted me so kindly during my visit; to all of the staff who stopped by my booth and sweetly entertained my questions. And super thanks to Christina, who recommended the fried okra—a first for me and five stars for them. And to Melvin and Kalvin who took time out of their busy shifts to share their stories with me, thank you!
As Old Skool undergoes a dining room renovation and finalizes plans to scale to another CA city, Bittersweet will be cheering you on from the East Coast and recommending Old Skool to everyone we know headed West.
Breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty is about as necessary and inspiring as I can fathom, but Old Skool makes it nourishing as well (body, mind and soul) and for that, they will always have my utmost respect.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly