There is more than coffee, breakfast and lunch going on at Liberty’s Kitchen, a new café located near the Orleans Parish Criminal Courthouse in Mid-City. The restaurant and caterer is also a nonprofit aimed at helping teens and young adults get their lives on track.
Liberty’s Kitchen uses a combination of hands-on food service training, classroom instruction and individual case management as part of its goal to build confidence, social skills and marketable job experience. People ages 16 to 20 are referred to the program by other social services agencies or from courthouse diversion programs. The training is followed by job placement services or help returning to school. Meanwhile, the café is open to the public, giving students a chance to learn in a real-world setting and giving consumers an easy way to support the program by simply ordering a meal or a cup of coffee.
“We don’t pretend to be a culinary program, this is an employability program,” says Janet Davas, CEO of Liberty’s Kitchen. “They’ll learn kitchen and barista skills, but our goal is to give them life skills and put them on a path to success – things like showing up to work on time, anger management and working with others. They can use those skills to go anywhere.”
The concept was inspired by Café Reconcile, the nonprofit café and youth training program that began in Central City in 2001. Davas served as Reconcile’s interim CEO for a time after Hurricane Katrina and Liberty’s Kitchen chef Reggie Davis also worked there. Davis and chef Hardie McDonald hatched the idea for the new nonprofit while working together at a catering company. Davis believes the restaurant approach is a singularly effective medium for engaging at-risk youth.
“With food, it’s real world, it’s day-to-day, we’re running a restaurant and serving the public,” says Davis. “It’s a very tangible item, people taste, see and respond to what they’re putting out. Let’s say one student makes scones and they sell out. He’s been accepted by everyone in the restaurant who bought a scone and he can take pride in that. That’s something these kids don’t get a lot of elsewhere.”
Liberty’s Kitchen is designed to partially support itself from café and catering sales, while the balance is made up by contributions from supporters. The program was launched with local fundraising, with café equipment donated by Starbucks Coffee and with a $375,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The café is open for breakfast and lunch on weekdays at 422 1/2 S. Broad St.