When Susan Trieschmann sold her shares in Food For Thought Catering after 20 years as a managing partner, she thought she was done with food service for good.
“I needed to do something different,” says Trieschmann, “and I ended up back where I started.”
Three weeks ago, Trieschmann opened Curt’s Café, a coffee shop at 2922 Central Street in Evanston, located in the former home of Casteel Coffee. With local artists’ work decorating the exposed brick walls, toys spread out on a table in the back and a menu that includes gourmet teas and coffee, Curt’s Café feels like any other upscale Central Street business.
But Curt’s Café is much more than a coffee shop. It combines Trieschmann’s passion for food with the passion she developed after leaving Food For Thought: helping young offenders find their way back into society. The café provides a daily stipend, job training and job placement to young adults between the ages of 15 and 24, all of whom have come in contact with the juvenile justice system for one reason or another.
When she sold her shares in Food For Thought in 2004, Trieschmann began working with Restorative Justice Evanston, a nonprofit that helps criminal offenders and their victims make peace with one another and reintegrate into society. Talking to young offenders, Trieschmann wanted to know what would keep them from offending again.
“When I asked what would break the cycle, they said, ‘Find me a job,’” recalls Trieschmann.
Finding a job for someone with a criminal background is a huge hurdle, however. When she was hiring for positions among Food For Thought’s 300 employees, Trieschmann says, “I would never hire kids like this.” She didn’t have to—there were plenty of applicants without criminal backgrounds.
So Trieschmann researched various models for job training programs for offenders. Most served adults who were ready to make a change, but Trieschmann wanted to step in earlier. So she began talking to local probation officers, social services agencies and Evanston’s Youth Job Center.
“Eighty-two percent of the time kids will re-offend within the year,” Trieschmann says. “We’re trying to break the cycle.”
For students in her program, Trieschmann offers six hours a day of on-the-job training, an hour of independent study and another hour of class taught by a member of the community. So far, volunteers have offered to teach students about Shakespeare, finances and etiquette (a class Trieschmann hopes will be taught by former Evanston mayor Lorraine Morton.)
“I’m kind of surprised what we’re not teaching in high school and college,” comments Trieschmann, listing basic business skills like answering a phone and balancing a checkbook.
The program at Curt’s Cafe is designed to last for three months, at which point Trieschmann plans to help her students find jobs in food service businesses around the area.
Chandel Ramsay, 18, was one of Trieschmann’s first hires. The job is literally a second chance for the Evanston resident, who is currently on probation for aggravated battery.
“Most organizations don’t have programs where you get paid while you’re training,” says Ramsay, who has an 11-month-old son and a 10-day-old daughter. “It is fun, and the people you work with are amazing. We sometimes talk about stuff outside the job.”
Chris Jemison, 23, has been working with Ramsay since the café opened. He found out about Curt’s Café through his career coach at the Youth Job Center.
“I love working here,” says Jemison. He was recently promoted to line manager—a position that has challenged him to be friendly yet firm with the other students. Trieschmann has helped him draw the line.
“She’s like, ‘You need to calm down, you don’t want to undermine your coworkers in front of the customers,’” he laughs. “I like for things to be perfect.”
The job has given him not just a chance to hone his food service skills with a pro, but also a close relationship with Trieschmann.
“I haven’t felt this way in nearly seven years, since my mom died,” Jemison said. “It’s going to be sad to know I have to leave.”
While in college, Jemison worked his way up from washing dishes in his school’s cafeteria to serving the president of the university. Although he majored in mass communications, he believes he could see a career in food service.
“Right now, everything in my life is pointing toward restaurant,” says Jemison.
As customers meander in and out on a Thursday morning, Trieschmann is always on the move, joking with her employees, picking up trash from the floor, wiping down a damp table and asking a dad and his daughter whether the café has enough toys.
Her job continues late into the evening, because the space transforms into the fledgling restaurant Just 8 Pizzeria at night. Launched by Trieschmann’s son at the same time Curt’s Café opened, Just 8 sells gourmet pizza and cookies.
"The little creeps are doing more than me in sales," she laughs.
Trieschmann hangs around late to help her son and his partners get started on the night. And when she's not at the café, she’s soliciting volunteers to teach classes to her students and to help fund the nonprofit.
So how many hours a day does she work?
“It’s not even work,” says Trieschmann. “So I guess, none.”
“Most of the moments have been rewarding,” she continues. “I’m always amazed at these kids’ strengths and how they overcome.”