Between the spicy collard greens and the West African peanut stew, the band members put down their instruments, the swinging tempo of 1940s jazz stops and one of the zoot-suit-clad waiters walks up to the microphone to tell his story. Where he was; where he could have been; where he is now.
This is Cora Jean’s Old Skool Café. A nonprofit supper club in the heart of Bayview run completely (and flawlessly) by teens and young adults, ages 16 to 22. Every evening, diners enjoy live entertainment (also provided by a youthful crew) and a soulful menu inspired by the grandparents, parents and the many cultures of those in the kitchen.
The décor, the music and the sophisticated uniforms harken back to the days of the Harlem Renaissance, a period marked by determination and celebration despite trepid times. And if you really want to get into the details, the majority of staff also happens to have criminal records. But that fact, like the theme of the restaurant, is simply a formative part of their history and, more importantly, a part of their past.
Founded by a former corrections officer, Teresa Goines, Old Skool Café provides something missing from the current juvenile criminal system: a future. For years, Teresa watched as the young men she worked with, incarcerated for gang- and drug-related crimes, received probation only to fall back on their former ways. A revolving door resulting from the need for money and the desire for a sense of family—which drugs and gangs provided. And with too few other options and too little hope, Teresa says, there just wasn’t anything else to change their fate.
That is, until she prayed for another way, another means of financial and familial support, even with an unlawful past. The answer came in the form of a restaurant, which would not only reconnect at-risk youth to the larger community, but perhaps pull the community towards them. Like the well-known Delancey Street, Old Skool Café employs the unemployable and, through partnerships with local mentorship programs and the greater food community, affords them the training and the responsibilities to begin a professional career. Not just providing a second chance, but simply a chance.
Teresa built her vision around the ideals of trust and belief, two things the youth lacked and two things even she struggled to earn when starting out.
“I wanted to run a fine-dining restaurant with previously incarcerated kids with no job experience,” she says. “It was kind of a hard sell.” After trying unsuccessfully for funding and a permanent location, Teresa decided to forget the normal steps and just go for it. “I realized people needed to see it to believe in it.” And before the pop-up dining venue was trendy, for Teresa it was necessity.
She started with her own home, which she used since 2005 for birthdays, dinners and other Old Skool Café catered events. She asked professional chefs, friends in the industry and even acquaintances from her salsa-dancing community to teach basic cutting and cooking skills. Other volunteers taught the apprentices how to serve. “And then we started popping up whenever and wherever we could get free space,” she says, “inviting everybody and anybody to join us.” Including the chief of police and the chief of juvenile probation—a guest list that led to endorsements, grant funding, a Jefferson Award and an honor from the FBI for violence prevention.
With this momentum, Old Skool Café also started attracting volunteers from all over the Bay, like Jeffrey Liang, who has worked alongside the Old Skool apprentices for six years. “I caught an interview with Teresa on TV and I knew I wanted to start volunteering, even though I had no restaurant experience.” Like him, Jeffrey says people come in for dinner only to realize they have something to contribute—whether it is a lesson on beer pairings or just providing encouragement.
“There are so many different facets of these youths’ lives that need support,” Teresa says. So whether it’s volunteers like Jeffrey, organizations like Dress for Success or local restaurants, she welcomes anyone ready to offer mentorship or skill building. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, but call on the net of support that already exists.”
But whatever a volunteer brings to Old Skool Café, Jeffrey adds that they all end up learning with and from the youth. “It’s good for the apprentices to see that even the adults don’t have the answer sometimes,” Teresa adds, “but with perseverance and hard work, we can work it out.” It puts them on an equal level. It makes them a team. It makes them a family. And while people think the number of hours Jeffrey puts in at Old Skool is a sacrifice, he says it a blessing. “I work with an amazing group of people in all different stages of life and even though I live in Hayes Valley, I think of Bayview as my home.”
This April, Old Skool Café will officially celebrate a year in their Bayview digs. Teresa’s vision will finally come true and she’ll offer her young apprentices consistent shift work and a real non-pop-up location. But Teresa cannot offer positions to everyone. “You can only help people that are ready to change,” she explains. And the training starts with the very first interview. “When people get called back for a second interview, most of the time only half of them show up. And we have to give them boundaries so they are prepared to be professionals and make it in the real world.”
When they are ready for responsibility, though, there is no shortage of skills, jobs or learning experiences to choose from. “Everyone should start washing dishes and work their way up,” Teresa says. “That way, they appreciate each job that is critical to make the restaurant run.” But she also gives them the opportunities to move around, from front of house to back, according to their passions, and to take on leadership positions when they’re ready.
“My vision is to help them be prepared to be managers and entrepreneurs, not just [hold] jobs that will keep them in minimum wage.”
That includes experiencing the level of service they’re expected to provide. “A huge piece of the mission is also about taking the staff to high-end restaurants to be guests. If they’ve never been on the receiving end, how do they know what good service is?” Slanted Door, Water Bar and Jardinière all happily opened their doors and kitchen. But Teresa hopes for more than just a seat at the table; she hopes for a place on the line, too. “If we could have 15 restaurants partner with us for externships where the apprentices experienced a professional kitchen, then perhaps the doors will really open. And maybe when they have openings for a dishwasher or line cook, they’ll call us.”
While professional training serves as one main goal in the Old Skool Café mission, personal exploration stands as the second. Teresa wants the apprentices to learn how to think big and dream big, to become confident and self-empowered enough to seek out the opportunities and support they desire when they graduate from the Old Skool Café walls. And she teaches them these skills through the network of mentors, volunteers and even the clothes they wear on their back.
“I picked the zoot suits because I thought they looked cool,” Teresa says. “But it’s a look that also comes from a time of great African American history, a time of joy, pride and dignity that has been lost on our young people.” When she watches her staff put on all the pieces, though—the suspenders, the bow tie, the fedora and the red flower—she sees them transform. “They look proud. Because when you act the part, you start to feel the part.”
And it is at that moment that Old Skool Café becomes more than just a classy supper club and more than a bridge from past to future. It becomes more than a new path, a stepping-stone to greater possibilities for these youth or an opportunity for people to believe in them. It is the moment when they start believing in themselves.