Imagine creating a warm, welcoming space and filling it with fresh-brewed coffee, tempting pastries, healthy meals, music, art and community. Add to that mix a mission to help at-risk teenagers and young adults develop discipline and find a direction in life. I found all that—and more—when I visited Curt’s Cafe.
This vision of providing people with an opportunity to dine with purpose belongs to Susan Trieschmann, founder and executive director of the cafe. Her passions and experience combine to make her the perfect person to launch this ambitious enterprise. She co-founded and helped develop and run the very successful Food for Thought catering business (in an amazing coincidence, it was started at this very same address in Evanston). After retiring from that business, she went back to school to study restorative justice and helped form Restorative Justice Evanston (RJE), which focuses on peaceful mediation and conflict resolution.
Susan listened to young people who had experienced judicial contact or had been incarcerated and what she heard was that a job could break the cycle…could make the difference…could stop them from becoming a repeat offender. So, the idea for Curt’s Café was born. And as Victor Hugo observed, There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.
If you watch Orange is the New Black, the compelling drama about life inside a woman’s prison, you are familiar with Taystee’s storyline—specifically, what happens when she tries—and fails— to successfully reenter society. This is an accurate portrayal —without a job, an education, a safe place to live and a supportive family, it is almost impossible to make the transition to the outside world. In fact, having a criminal record makes it much harder to find employment or qualify for any educational programs or aid.
The at-risk youths who work at Curt’s Café receive a stipend and learn everything about food service and running a restaurant from ordering supplies to cooking and baking to working with customers…and of course, brewing a great cup of coffee. Those who are working on their GED receive tutoring, and instruction is available so they can become computer literate. These young people learn many life lessons and finally, are provided with job placement assistance. One of the most important ingredients for their success is the support and human connection they find at Curt’s—from the talented staff, the devoted volunteers, and even, the warmhearted customers.
The other part of this story is how enthusiastically the Evanston community has embraced this venture. Susan has received awards honoring her community service and compassionate philosophy, as well as several grants to keep growing the business. Support, in many forms, has come from City Hall, The Woman’s Club of Evanston, Northwestern University, Evanston Township High School, local businesses (including Starbucks!), Evanston church and synagogue congregations and a host of other groups and individuals.
I spent part of yesterday morning relaxing in the homey atmosphere of Curt’s enjoying a latte, sipping a smoothie and sampling various pastries (for research purposes only). Everything was excellent, but I do give particularly high marks to the popular green drink and the mixed berry bar. Next time, I hope to return at lunchtime and try one of their homemade soups and a sandwich or wrap.
There is a bonus room, of sorts—an adjacent living room (with a piano) which can be reserved free of charge for any groups (I think my knitting group would love this space), book clubs, events or lunch meetings. Curt’s also offers catering services and free WiFi. Susan rents out the space in the evenings to the fledgling pizzeria, Just 8, run by her son and two of his friends.
If you live in the Chicagoland area, head over there to eat well and do good.
Susan Trieschmann has also sent ripples around the country as one of the top finalists in the L’Oreal 2013 Women of Worth competition
Read more from Belinda Brock on her blog, Grandbooking