Refill Cafe Project History

Our Story

Refill Cafe will be a non-profit workforce development café in the community of west Jackson, MS. It will provide young adults who have fallen outside the traditional school system with the skills and opportunity to pursue a career path within the food and hospitality industry. Refill Cafe (“Refill”) will operate a vibrant restaurant and retail establishment with training stations to develop functional competencies and occupational skills for program participants. In addition, Refill will address the participants’ holistic development to ensure they are set up for success beyond the program. To that end, the program intends to offer social service support, educational support, mentoring, and employment services—all offered either directly through Refill or indirectly through a partner. The program will be a long-term anchor for participants as we help place them into internships, jobs, advanced training programs, and even postsecondary opportunities leading to a degree.  

Jordan Butler will lead the project planning efforts. Planning activities will initially focus on Jordan spending several months on-site at Café Reconcile in New Orleans. As a successful workforce training center that has been in operation for over a decade, Café Reconcile will help Jordan understand the intricacies of the workforce development model. Jordan will observe management of the meal service, the integration of education, training and social support, and the movement of individual participants through a cohort. Following her initial on-site visit, Café Reconcile will continue to provide Jordan technical assistance throughout the planning process—which will include follow-up trips to New Orleans, assistance on curriculum and budgeting, recommendations for staffing, and strategies for managing social support services. Most importantly, through this process Jordan will acquire hands-on experience in the holistic management of trainees that will allow him to develop a successful plan for Jackson. The Community Foundation of Greater Jackson has agreed to manage funds for Refill Cafe as it establishes its organization and Board.  

BACKGROUND  


The café location is the former Koinonia Coffee House on the Jackson State University Parkway in West Jackson. When building owner Lee Harper opened Koinonia eight years ago, it was the first new commercial food concern to open on the JSU Parkway in decades. Mrs. Harper intended the restaurant to be a catalyst for economic development and community engagement for an economically depressed area of the city with high unemployment. Her Friday Forum and Saturday Breakfast Club programs quickly became staples in the lives of many in the community. But the focus on coffee and community without a strong revenue stream eventually became a financial burden on Mrs. Harper, and she had to shut down the store. The announced closure of Koinonia this summer—along the with closure of another popular nearby dining establishment—sent ripples through the community, leaving residents without a central place to congregate, relax, and exchange vital information.  

About the same time Mrs. Harper launched Koinonia, a group at nearby St. Andrew’s Cathedral began work on a plan to open a workforce training café in Jackson. The group was inspired by the success of similar initiatives such as Café Reconcile and Liberty Kitchen in New Orleans and Café Climb on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Over a period of years, the group developed a preliminary plan while looking for a site near the downtown cathedral. The group secured some initial funding but was never able to lock down a site. Eventually, the project stalled. The project was revived a couple of years ago when one of the group’s original members, Grady Griffin, took the concept to his partners at Soul City Hospitality—a business focused on developing infrastructure for Mississippi’s local food system. The partners decided the appropriate vehicle for this project would be a new non-profit organization that would focus exclusively on training and developing needed workforce within a revitalized food system. The organization to emerge is called the Southern Artisan Training Institute (SATI)—a Mississippi non-profit business in the process of applying for its federal 501(c)(3) status.  

Grady Griffin spent almost a decade as the Education Director for the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association. In that capacity, Grady developed ProStart™ culinary programs in dozens of high schools throughout Mississippi. He and his partners at Soul City Hospitality are experienced restaurateurs in their own rights. As such, they felt that for a workforce initiative to be successful, it would depend upon having a restaurant anchor with a sustainable revenue-generating capability. Additionally, they recognized the venture would need strong industry and charitable support, the right operational personnel, and the right personnel for life skills and social service support—something the group does not have direct experience in. But the two most important ingredients out of the gate are: (1) an experienced, passionate leader with a vision and community credibility and (2) an appropriate site that is accessible to the target audience of trainees but also within reach of customers that can sustain the restaurant’s revenue needs.  

Chef Nick Wallace spent his adolescent years attending high school in West Jackson at Jim Hill. From there, Nick worked his way through the culinary program at Hinds Community College and into the corridors of sophisticated dining halls in nearby downtown Jackson. Nick has been the Executive Chef at the Marriot Hotel, the King Edward Hotel, and now at the Mississippi Museum of Art Palette Café, where he routinely prepares exquisite meals for hundreds of event guests. But Nick has never forgotten his West Jackson roots. In fact, Nick partnered with the Opportunity Center to create a community garden at the Boys & Girls Club just down the street from Koinonia. Nick also developed something he calls “Creativity Kitchen,” a program through which he delivers culinary training with a healthy focus to food service workers and students at Jackson Public Schools. Nick delivers similar training to the people of West Jackson through the community kitchens at The Stewpot, The Village Apartments, Jackson Roadmap, and other sites. Recently, Chef Nick extended his outreach into Kroger stores, where he collaborates with AARP to demo healthy cooking tips to senior citizens. Chef Nick is also a partner in the Soul City Hospitality group.  

The Refill Café unites the concept of Koinonia, the needs of the restaurant industry as identified by all of Grady’s work, the workforce training and the skills, vision, and teaching experience of Chef Nick Wallace and the Public Health and Public Service expertise of Jordan Butler into a new offering. The café sits at the crossroads between the past and the future for West Jackson. Refill Café will be a financially sustainable restaurant that builds on the Koinonia legacy and fills the need in West Jackson for a new eatery and community gathering spot. The café will feature a healthy menu that draws from local sources, and It will provide a permanent home for Chef Nick’s Creativity Kitchen.  


Youth Development & Local Food System Training  

A typical Café Reconcile cohort involves 3 weeks of life skills training, 5 weeks of occupational skills straining, and a 4-week internship. The five occupational workstations include: steward, floor service/wait staff, pantry chef, sous chef, and department chef. Through the planning phase, Chef Nick will study the importance of the cohort structure and the occupational training. We anticipate that we will follow closely the structure Café Reconcile has developed. However, we will also explore ways to incorporate some health education and exposure to the components of a food system alongside the culinary and hospitality training.  

Refill Cafe will provide program participants the opportunity to develop their individual strengths and interests within a structured learning environment. For students to have an interest, they must first possess knowledge about available opportunities. After the initial life skills training, we intend the program will spend a short amount of time on “introduction to food systems” training. The training will serve two purposes. Through a series of field trips to businesses representing different industries in the supply chain (from farms to hubs to processors to grocery stores), students will gain awareness of career opportunities they may pursue based upon their own interests. They will also have the opportunity to interact with adults who may model new job possibilities and convey the patience and effort required to succeed in a career.  

Additionally, the Introduction to Food Systems training will involve a series of hands-on nutritional workshops that begin at the farm and conclude with youth participating in preparing a healthy feast. The purpose of this particular training is two-fold: to create an awareness of the food cycle and to create a connection for the youth between their diet and their health. We believe this self-awareness will help participants be more informed employees, make them more conscious of what they consume, and will also make them vested parties in the direction of the food system.  

Finally, including exposure to non-traditional food industries within the training will open up internship possibilities at businesses outside of the hospitality industry. We believe this might improve career opportunities for participants in the Jackson market, which is considerably different than the tourist-driven restaurant market of New Orleans.  

Through the planning period, stakeholders will rely upon technical assistance from Café Reconcile, insights from community partners, and further research and analysis to refine intended outcomes so they are feasible, fundable, and measureable. The initiative has several high-level intermediate goals for Refill Café program participants. Café Graduates will have marketable skills in food service and hospitality industries. An indicator of success will initially be an internship and eventually be full-time employment in a job for at least six months. Participants will know and have appropriate workplace behavior, indicated through passing a skills assessment test, graduating from the program, and successfully completing an internship. Participants will attain coping skills, indicated through attendance tracking in life skills classes.  

In addition, graduates will understand techniques to purchase and prepare healthy meals by participating in the Creativity Kitchen program. The initiative will produce long-term community improvements in food security and family health outcomes for those who participate in the cooking courses over time.  

Overall, creating more employed and employable people to model career paths, increasing opportunity for better jobs and household revenue, and improving awareness of and access to healthy foods will, over time, translate into a more resilient, secure, and economically mobile community.