The Real Thing

The award-winning Café 54 serves the Tucson community on many levels

It's midmorning, and a quiet energy can be felt in the urban-chic dining room.

The Café 54 staff is busy prepping for service, which starts in about 90 minutes. A woman is rolling silverware into napkins. Another staff member wipes down the tables and chairs, while two people count out the cash drawer at the counter in the back of the room.

The kitchen is in full swing. People are chopping veggies for the salads. A woman shapes pastry dough in tiny tart pans. A man washes the pots and pans used earlier in the day.

In one sense, this is just like any other restaurant in prep mode. But under the surface, much more is happening.

I was at Café 54 to work a shift. It has been years since I worked at any type of restaurant. I really wanted to help, but everything was moving so smoothly that I had little to do other than observe.

Café 54 is the brainchild of Mindy Bernstein, the executive director of the Coyote Task Force, the organization that operates the café and Our Place Clubhouse. (See Local Heroes, Dec. 25, 2008, and TQ&A, Oct. 4, 2007.) The café is an on-the-job culinary training program for adults (called "clients") recovering from serious mental illness. The clients are trained as bussers, food runners, servers, dishwashers, line cooks, pastry cooks, cashiers and even job coaches. The restaurant is purposefully understaffed with job coaches so that trainees are responsible for the success (or failure) of the café.

Some thought Bernstein was chasing an unrealistic dream when she started the program. Operating a restaurant is tough--and so are the barriers associated with serious mental illness. Recovery from mental illness can be a long, lonesome process, due to problems such as a lack of self-esteem, minimal job experience and--perhaps the hardest of all--the stigma surrounding mental illness. But at Café 54, trainees find plenty of support and guidance through each stage of their training and recovery.

"When projects are good-intentioned, the opportunity to make them come alive will happen," Bernstein says. Funding comes through grants from Community Partnership of Southern Arizona and state Rehabilitative Services Administration establishment grants.

For some trainees, Café 54 is giving them their first job. For others, the café offers a chance to return to the community. The café may be the first step in a career, an opportunity to develop skills that can lead a job where clients will be able to support themselves with little or no reliance on government help.

"They feel it's something that is building their self-esteem," says program manager Debbie Tingley. "We're like a family here.

"People have fewer symptoms. It improves their quality of life. There's a cost savings to the community," says Tingley, noting that the clients pay taxes and have an answer to the common question: "What do you do for a living?"

With 45 minutes left before the doors open, Tingley calls a quick meeting in the adjacent dining room.

Tingley talks about goals and planning and menu changes. Then everyone, including me, takes turns relating their daily duties. One young man proudly talks about how he is prepping the staff lunch. Another will be training on the cash register, which includes balancing the drawer at the end of the shift. The runners--who bring the famous house rosemary rolls to the tables--and the servers add their input.

The meeting breaks up, and, with very little prompting, everyone returns to their last-minute duties: wiping down the counters, grouping tables for a party of Red Hat Ladies who are expected any minute, putting a lovely strawberry shortcake cream puff and a gooey chocolate pecan tart in the display case.

The first customers trickle in, ordering at the counter from the chalkboard menu. Today, the offerings include regular items such as a goat cheese tart, a lobster roll, specialty salads and the winter special: a cup of soup with half of a grilled-ham-and-cheese sandwich. There are daily specials as well.

"It's good, fresh, healthy food, served quickly," Bernstein says. It should be noted that the prices are reasonable, too.

Orlando Montes, one of the front-of-the-house job coaches, watches as the cashier asks the questions necessary to get the orders right; he steps in only if needed. Laura Coleman, the other front-of-the-house coach (who is also the vocational coordinator), greets a busser trainee who just arrived. She gently makes a suggestion or two and then makes a final run through the dining room.

Montes has been with the program for about two years. He, like others on the staff, brings both restaurant and social service experience to his job.

"I worked my way through school working in restaurants," he says.

Coleman has been with the café since its inception about five years ago. "We've gone from very little business to a lot of business," Coleman says. "Our following has gotten bigger."

Tingley agrees. "We're well supported by the downtown community," she says.

David Hendrickson is on the floor, too. As the café's job developer/job coach, he works with local employers to place trainees in competitive employment (a job where someone is paid wages equal to others doing the same job). In fact, he plans to take a trainee to a nearby eatery for an interview after today's shift.

Bernstein says that the skills learned are transferable to many other jobs; not everyone continues in the restaurant business. "After people leave, about 40 percent are placed in competitive employment," she says, adding that some people realize they don't want to work, which is a success in itself.

By now, the joint is jumping, and the tip jar--which funds the art on the walls, made by Café 54 staffers and those at Our Place Clubhouse--begins to fill up. I try to help by busing a couple of tables. But I'm slow, and the staff has the tables cleared well ahead of me.

I step into the kitchen and can only observe; there is way too much going on to "help." A runner grabs two dishes and smoothly heads toward the dining room. He'll know which table the food goes to by the table numbers, which include pictures of famous people who have experienced serious mental illness. This includes everyone from Vivian Leigh to Vincent Van Gogh to Mike Wallace.

Two hours pass quickly with nary a glitch. And the tip jar is full.

Once things slow down, people get a chance to eat the staff lunch, a beef stir fry. Conversation is typical co-worker chat: There are no bad feelings here, no snipping, not an ounce of professional jealousy. Any employer could only hope to have such a team.

The restaurant is empty, and after a bit of cleaning and stocking, folks head home.

How Someone Gets to Work at Café 54

• Client is referred by a vocational-rehabilitation counselor. Cannot have a history of violence. Must be sober.

• Client takes a tour of the café.

• Vocational-rehabilitation counselor and Café 54 job coach work with the trainee to create an Individual Employment Plan, to determine specific goals, strengths and opportunities for development. The plan is reviewed periodically to determine progress, discuss future goals and offer positive feedback.

• Client starts work at a level they feel comfortable at and is assigned a job coach.

• Plan is monitored continually by the vocational-rehabilitation counselor and job coach.

• Clients stay with program for 6 to 9 months (longer in rare cases).

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