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January 22, 2019

Community Matters Café looks to change lives

The non-profit cafe will provide culinary training in a restaurant setting

Community Matters

Community Matters Café overlooks uptown off of Cedar Street. Kristen Wile/UP

Community Matters Café may be a nonprofit, but it’s opening with one of the strongest culinary teams in town. The restaurant and coffee shop, run by Charlotte Rescue Mission, will train graduates of the Rescue Mission’s addiction programs to prepare them for jobs in the culinary industry. Leading the restaurant will be executive chef Nick Kepp and executive pastry chef Ashley Anna Tuttle. Paula Elkins will run the coffee program, and Noami Knox will be restaurant’s sous chef. The café, scheduled to open in early April, will serve breakfast and lunch, with a pastry case and coffee bar in the front of the restaurant.

Kepp comes most recently from Southminster and Knox from St. Mark’s Soup Kitchen, while Tuttle previously worked for Uptown restaurant Haymaker. All were drawn to the opportunity to have a tangible influence on the students who come through the restaurant, and give back to the culinary community through providing dependable staff during the city’s labor shortage and supporting local farmers and purveyors.

The building housing the café was a decrepit thrift shop until Community Matters, a group of about 80 insurance companies, committed to volunteer with the Charlotte Rescue Mission for a year. Community Matters will generally stay for a year, then leave a six-figure donation when their year is over. The group got word of an idea to turn the empty thrift shop space into a restaurant, and asked whether a five-year commitment and million-dollar donation could make the thought real.

“That opened the door,” says Ed Price, director of Life Skills Operations. From there, two churches each committed $150,000 and the local Alcoholic Beverage Control donated $200,000. Contractors donated their time, the kitchen equipment was gifted, the HVAC was put in at a 50 percent discount.

“People just get this; this isn’t abstract,” Price says. “They get job development, they get all of that.”

Before getting into the kitchen, students will be trained in life skills and soft skills. They’ll learn things such as how to be a dependable employee, how to handle feedback, stress management, and the importance of getting to work on time. They’ll also get their ServSafe certification.

Students will be grouped in “cohorts” of seven, and they’ll rotate throughout the restaurant. They’ll spend about seven weeks each in the kitchen, the coffee shop, then the dining room, and at the end, the chefs hope their connections will help get the students jobs in restaurants.

The restaurant is in Uptown, off of South Cedar on 1st Street, with a stunning view of the city and plenty of parking. The chefs there are creating a menu that will be craveable, yet manageable for the students. Because the restaurant will not serve alcohol, they won’t be open for dinner, but will be available to rent for private events and can fit up to 150 guests. Tuttle will oversee the desserts, the pastry case, and the bread program. She’ll also be making the syrups for the coffee bar.

“We’ll still have a focus on local ingredients and all of those things that mean a lot to our executive team here, cause although it’s just about teaching people, I have a responsibility I feel to the local food industry as well,” Tuttle says. “We’re called Community Matters, and it’s not just about our students, it’s about our guests and our local food industry as well.”

The restaurant’s breakfast and lunch menu, executive chef Kepp says, will be Southern and simple, but cooked right.

“Everything’s going to be really approachable, just cooked with love and meant with the background of what we’re here to do, and that’s to give experience to our residents working in the kitchen,” he says.

The goal of the restaurant is to provide graduates of the Rescue Mission’s programs with a career path, and takes advantage of the need for labor in restaurants across the city.

“With the need in the culinary community right now here in Charlotte, if we can approach the life skills that we’re teaching them, which includes work ethic, with basic culinary skills, safety and sanitation, how to run a dish pit, how to hold a knife in your hand, we can have really solid entry level workers that we can put in the workforce,” he says.

When the restaurant and coffee shop opens next month, there will be a large coffee bar with pastries, a fireplace, and lounge area when you walk in the door. To get to the restaurant, you’ll go down a few steps to a hostess station, where you’ll be seated in the dining room with a wall of windows looking up at the city.

The first cohort has already passed their ServSafe tests, and will be on hand to help open the restaurant, a valuable experience for anyone looking to get into the restaurant industry.

“Our motto is to restore hope, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Tuttle says. —Kristen Wile

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