Through hands-on culinary training and skill development that translate into catering and supermarket work, GRACE’s program is empowering people to transform their lives.
Gainesville resident and homeless advocate Pat Fitzpatrick is somewhat of a legend in the Gainesville community. Remembered widely around town for his, let’s say, colorful contributions to City Commission meetings, he never lost focus on his mission to “Feed Everyone.”
Pat was a long-time opponent of Gainesville’s policy limiting soup kitchens to serving only 130 meals per day. And he wasn’t shy about asking commissioners what they would say to the 131st person who would be turned away hungry.
The dining hall at the center of the GRACE Marketplace campus pays homage to Pat and how he helped erase the 130-meal limit from Gainesville’s books. The aptly named Café 131 now serves upward of 400 hot meals every day.
“You don’t have to be a resident at GRACE Marketplace to eat here,” said Development Director Karen Slevin. “It’s free to anyone who is hungry.”
Café 131 serves more than just nutritious meals, however. Behind the kitchen doors, Chef Marty heads up GRACE Marketplace’s culinary training program, which serves up real-world job training to up to 15 students per 10-week semester.
Training for Personal and Professional Development
GRACE launched its culinary training program in February 2016 to further its mission to be a one-stop assistance center for people without housing. Through a grant from the Community Foundation of North Florida, GRACE was able to secure the services of CIA-trained Chef Marty, who has worked for industry giants, including Emeril Lagasse, and led kitchens at large-scale dining facilities at the Grand Floridian and Walt Disney World.
The goal of the training program is simple — to empower people to obtain gainful employment through hands-on training and life coaching.
“We really just try to make it similar to what job applicants encounter in the real world,” Karen said. “We give them kitchen training, but we also provide education on softer skills that are often overlooked such as professional interaction with colleagues, résumé writing, and interview skills.”
Students in the program receive a $50 cash stipend and work 20 hours each week. Karen noted the money and experience work wonders to boost the students’ confidence in their ability to rejoin the workforce.
“Some people come to us during the most difficult periods of their lives,” she said. “It is amazing to see the transformation that takes place when they enter the training program. You can see it in the way they carry themselves and interact with others.”
When students near the graduation phase of the program, they are provided vouchers from The Junior League so they can buy interview outfits at the Junior League Thrift Shop on North Main Street. GRACE makes sure graduates have everything they need to secure employment, from kitchen shoes to a professionally written résumé.
GRACE Catering — Great Food for a Good Cause
Since its inception, GRACE’s culinary training program has seen 29 people graduate ready to enter the workforce. This year, 12 of these graduates have found jobs, and nine have moved into housing.
Many of the graduates, however, aren’t solely working in the restaurant industry. Several have been hired by supermarkets and one is working for a caterer.
“When we started, we envisioned people going to work in restaurants, like Blue Gill and other local establishments,” Karen said. “We then had to rethink what that means when we saw a number of our students were getting too old to handle the demanding, fast-paced, and difficult work in a commercial kitchen.”
That’s when GRACE began looking at local grocery stores, such as Publix and Lucky’s, as alternatives where students could still utilize the skills they had learned in the program. It is also what lead to the creation of GRACE Catering.
“We’ve done a number of catering jobs for the Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation, and the United Way,” Karen said. “Our biggest was a lunch for more than 200 people at the Women’s Presbyterian Group’s statewide conference.”
These types of events provide an additional layer of experience graduates can list on their résumés. Not only do the students prep and cook the food — they also help serve it. This prepares people to work for a full-service catering business and provides job opportunities for students who might have difficulty in the physically demanding environment of a busy restaurant.
“It’s a great model that works on multiple levels,” Karen said. “People receive the catering they want, the money comes back to feed the people who are here, and the students get the skills they need to succeed.”
Because of Chef Marty’s vast culinary experience, customers are finding GRACE Catering’s menu to be diverse, delicious, and reasonably priced. The most popular menu item is the Sriracha Pineapple Chicken Sandwich, but there’s something for everyone, including an array of salads and sandwiches and the kitchen’s famous bread pudding.
Give Back to the Community by Cooking at Café 131
GRACE Marketplace operates with a $15,000-per-year grant from the United Way and receives funding from the Community Foundation to help underwrite Chef Marty’s salary. However, none of this goes toward the actual food costs.
The vast majority of GRACE’s food is supplied through individual donations or secured through Bread of the Mighty Food Bank. Because of this, GRACE gladly opens its doors to groups who are interested in volunteering their time and money to purchase and prepare meals for its residents.
“Our staff is spread pretty thin, and we’re hoping to attract more people to come volunteer and participate,” Karen said. “There are a number of teams that come in to cook and serve. Called to Action regularly donates time and resources, and St. Augustine Church has been helping from our beginning.”
Businesses have found volunteering at GRACE to be an excellent team-building exercise for employees. The activity fosters cooperation and working toward a common goal of helping people in need.
“There are so many opportunities for people to get involved and adopt a project at GRACE,” Karen said. “Coming in and donating time and resources helps keep our training program running and really changes lives for the better.”
With the help of the community, GRACE is realizing Pat Fitzpatrick’s dream to “Feed Everyone.”