A Rough Go for Restaurants
How do you survive a pandemic one-two punch? Old Skool Cafe found out.
As a youth-run supper club, they are a fully functioning business and restaurant. They are also a nonprofit, mission-driven organization.They train and employ at-risk youth ages 16-22 to run all aspects of a restaurant: hosting, bussing, serving, cooking, and entertaining. In doing so, they offer a solution to youth as a way of breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration.
Roughly 17% of U.S. restaurants have shut down since the start of the pandemic.1 The National Restaurant Association estimates that compared to pre-pandemic levels, restaurant employment is down close to 2.5 million jobs.2
Nonprofits are another community facing challenges caused by the pandemic. Organizations that rely on fundraising events, corporate partners, and service-oriented business models have had to navigate continued effects.
So when the pandemic forced restaurants to temporarily shut down and changed the going-out habits of millions of restaurant patrons across the country, Old Skool Cafe had to get creative and reimagine their business offerings.
Old Skool Cafe Founder and Director, Teresa Goines summed it up in an interview with Eater: “We teach our youth about trying to have a mindset that is flexible because life is always going to throw you lemons, but this was a great opportunity to model that ourselves. I think it was good for [the youth], seeing the adults struggle too and watching how we learn with perseverance and grit.” 3
Old Skool Cafe had to get creative and reimagine their business offerings
They turned to curbside pick up, family meals, live jazz on the patio. They tapped into their comfort food approach – marketing their menu as one fit for the pandemic, at a time when all society wanted was to sit around a table enjoying a family recipe. They brought in entertainment by offering #MusicAndAMeal, where with each curbside pickup, customers received a Spotify playlist curated by their members and designed to accompany the meal. Eventually they moved to limited reservations.
Old Skool Cafe was sustained by pick-up orders, donations, and fundraisers. They thrived, based on the grit and determination of their staff and youth, along with the support of the community. It’s no surprise. Some of the hardiest ecological systems are found in deserts. And the restaurant is in the middle of a food desert.
A Food Desert
Old Skool Cafe is found in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco. The Brookings Institute says Bayview-Hunters Point is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the city, while The New York Times says it’s one of the most violent. 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.'"
It’s a known food desert, with no grocery stores selling fresh food within at least a mile radius. More than 40 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line: $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 Cafe.
Young people of Bayview-Hunters Point are the hands and heart of Old Skool Cafe
"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," said Teresa Goines. She left her career as a juvenile corrections officer to start Old Skool Cafe with the intent of breaking the cycle of incarceration and providing hope.
Old Skool Cafe 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.
“My life's work - and the entire purpose of Old Skool Cafe - has been to bring opportunity and equality to the young men and women of our community who have been victims of systemic racial, economic and social oppression: young men and women who have too often been left out or left behind as a result of inequality at nearly every level of society,” Teresa said. Just like the youth who grow up through Old Skool Cafe, the café itself is finding continued purpose and success.
Growing Up Old Skool
In 2017, BitterSweet featured Old Skool Cafe. Since then, Eater, Forbes, Thrillest and others have too. The organization has established a philanthropic partnership with Bon Appetit. They opened their new Louis Lounge, a cozy nook on the second floor the restaurant. Before the pandemic, it had played host to youth entertainers playing jazz music.
“Now, the room has been converted into an ideal spot to catch up with a friend over a cocktail after a long year of drinking wine and beer at home,” according to Old Skool Cafe.
Staple menu items remain. Jordan’s fried chicken. Tongan Taumoepeau Ota - a delicious, creamy fish ceviche served with tortilla chips. Abu’s peanut butter stew with blackened shrimp – a West African dish of peanut butter, coconut milk, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Daniel’s gumbo – a New Orleans classic. The dishes are youth-inspired, passed down from their families. The food has serious high-end culinary appeal.
Old Skool Cafe serves feel-good family recipes and comfort food
It’s poetry through nourishment, as the Old Skool team likes to say.
The family-recipe approach has helped the youth feel connected to the mission of Old Skool Cafe. They get to offer a bit of their family’s cultures and histories to the neighborhood. In the midst of a pandemic, the restaurant’s family-recipe approach also tapped into a void that many across the country were feeling. At a certain point, society seemed to collectively yearn for the soul-filling taste of a family-style meal.
Sustenance Through Family Dinners
We celebrate many milestones in life through eating. There is something sacred about coming around a table with family, or friends-like-family, to share our abundance. The ritual transcends cultures, geographic borders, and socioeconomic levels.
The youth who grow up involved with Old Skool Cafe find sustenance through family dinners. This happens both in the extension of generosity – the serving and making of food – and in the gathering around the table with their Old Skool “family” to celebrate breaking cycles of systemic racial, economic, and social oppression.
Desiree Maldonado has held many positions at the supper club over the years: dish washer, hostess, server, line chef, and floor manager. She came as a youth involved in the program, and returned as an adult, eager to serve and lead those in the next generation. Her connection to the family runs deep.
“This is a family. I see the youth smiling. I see managers smiling. Their smiles... I mean, even through the mask, you see it through their eyes, they're smiling,” she said.
“That's why Old Skool Cafe was created, because when you go have dinner with your family at the table, you have your laughs and your memories and your moments, and everybody is having such a great time. And that's what we want to recreate with youth that feel like nobody is there for them,” she said “We have a sign that says, ‘Come as strangers, leave as friends.’ We want everyone to always feel welcome and to feel like this is your home.”
After over a year of social distancing, the ritual of dining together is coming alive again. As life returns to restaurants and weekend dining scenes, as lounges fill up once again with the hum of voices over background music, and as the world begins to travel again, we invite you to add Old Skool Cafe to your bucket list. You might just leave as family.