This San Francisco Supper Club Gives Youth a Chance to Reinvent Themselves

(Photo courtesy Old Skool Café)

This San Francisco Supper Club Gives Youth a Chance to Reinvent Themselves

At Old Skool Café, young people whose lives have been impacted by violence, the foster care system, and incarceration are learning the ins and outs of the food business and forging new paths in the process.

Story by Gabrielle Lawrence

Published on Aug 1, 2022

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This story originally appeared in Civil Eats and is reprinted here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

Velvety carpet lines the entrance to Old Skool Café, and as guests arrive they are greeted by a hallway full of photographs and memories. There is a sense that people have not only been here—but that life has been lived here. Located right next to the Bayview Opera House in the southeast corner San Francisco, the jazz-themed supper club is three levels high including the bar, an open red leather seating area, and a balcony for lounging and performances. It feels both roomy and intimate, and warmth suffuses the space.

But Old Skool is much more than a restaurant; it’s a faith-based, violence-prevention program that provides job training, employment, and a second chance at life to at-risk, formerly incarcerated, and foster care youth.

Desiree*, an Old Skool alum who joined the program at age 15 in 2008, returned in 2017 as a staff member to mentor others like her. Since then, she has continued to learn about the food business and worked her way up to the role of assistant general manager in training.

“Old Skool was created to give at-risk youth the family that a lot of them don’t have. [Some] don’t even know what a family is—other than the people on the streets,” says Desiree.

Despite the ever-changing staff, nothing about Old Skool is haphazardly thrown together. The menu and the foods are carefully chosen, and the young participants have the option to add their own recipes—often foods they saw cooked in their homes as children—as specials for two months at a time. “If it hits and it’s popular, then we add it to the regular menu. If it doesn’t, then we continue to work on the recipe and try again,” says Desiree. One example, Daniel’s Gumbo—which was created by a program alum—tasted like the real thing.

Twenty years ago, Teresa Goines, a juvenile corrections officer at the time, noticed a gap in the reentry system for California youth. After serving their sentences at juvenile hall, Goines says that most of the youth had so few options on the outside that they would ask to come back. In juvenile detention, at least their basic needs were met.

“Many of them were getting their high school diplomas and receiving counseling. We had work crews, structure, and support,” says Goines. But when they left, they often faced a choice between a violent environment or homelessness and food insecurity. “We [were] setting them up to fail,” she adds.

(Photo courtesy Old Skool Café)

After two years of intentional research, Goines’ founded Old Skool Café, and she says she built every inch of it keeping in mind the needs of the young people she’d worked with. “Jobs, a sense of family and community, and purpose. They were finding it in the streets, but it was [costing them] their lives. I wanted Old Skool to be competitive with the streets and offer what every human being needs in a life-giving way.”

36-Degree Training

Why focus on a restaurant? A significant portion of San Francisco’s economy is generated by tourism, and its food and hospitality scene has become an integral part of that economy. Eighteen years ago, when Goines began researching viable industries, she noted 25 percent of the jobs in the area were generated by the hospitality industry. The industry has been on a roller coaster since then—with the tech boom and the COVID-19 shutdown—but Old Skool has so far survived intact.

In 2020, it pivoted to online ordering and outdoor dining. But even when the café had to close down, the youth were still receiving training online; they adapted and learned. Though San Francisco Travel’s 2022 report details a significant increase in travel and spending in the city since the downturn turn of 2020, it’s clear that there is still much to repair.

Goines felt a restaurant would offer an opportunity to learn about growth in a professional environment. Many leaders in the industry start out as dishwashers and work their way up to be restaurant managers or owners. She appreciated the lessons the structure could offer youth in a safe environment.

“I knew that young people didn’t like school, but food is kinesthetic,” said Goines. The youth, some as young as 13, can train for every position in the industry at Old Skool. Over the course of two years, they can move throughout the restaurant, serving roles as line cooks, servers, hosts, managers, and even performers.

Take Royel, a young food lover currently in the program who dreams of one day opening her own restaurant, for example. She is working in the back of the house, gaining experience working with professional chefs. While beefing up their resumes in a flexible environment, Goines says, the participants can build on their people skills and see instant rewards for their authentic personalities.

The youth at Old Skool also get life-skills training. They learn the basics of financial stability, such as how to open bank accounts, use credit cards, and manage debt. They receive help with resumes, cover letters, and interview training. Resident Chef Kevin Tucker also brings in guest chefs from around the area to share their expertise, as well as additional BIPOC chefs who visit to talk about their experience running thriving businesses.

For Desiree, recent presentation opportunities have helped her develop public speaking skills. “When I first started [at Old Skool], I couldn’t get a word out,” she said, “I’m super shy, so I was like, ‘This is never gonna happen. This is not me.’ But we believe in pushing everyone out of their comfort zone to open up opportunities for them.”

A Community Touchstone

Old Skool is seen by many as a shining example of what it means to holistically build a program around a community. Hydra Mendoza is a long-time supporter and neighbor. She worked in city government for 13 years, mainly in the Mayor’s offices, and served as a member to the San Francisco Board of Education. Mendoza met Goines during an event that included walking around the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood and getting to know the local businesses, organizations, and groups. What sets Old Skool apart? Mendoza says it’s that they “welcome everyone.” During recent visits, she says she’s seen the restaurant host everyone from former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to groups of local public school teachers.

“If things feel run down or discarded, it impacts our psyches. I want them to get to come into a beautiful place that they helped build and to welcome people into a space full of safety, beauty, life, joy, and connection.”

(Photo courtesy Old Skool Café)

“Teresa was doing this out of her living room at first. When [Old Skool] moved into the building 10 years ago, a block and a half from me, I would bring my friends down to help,” said Mendoza. “I hired the youth to work at my wedding reception. There was a father who used to hang out in front of Old Skool and now his child is a participant in the program. So, there’s buy-in happening from locals as well.”

In recent years, Mendoza and her husband have hosted ballot parties preceding local elections to teach the young people about the voting system. “These are things that the young people were not thinking about because they were focused on survival. So now that they have the space to settle, they can focus on being more proactive.”

Though the café has an important mission, its location takes many of its guests out of their comfort zones. Bayview-Hunters Point is home to a former naval shipyard; it suffered from historic redlining that set its predominantly Black residents apart from other well-resourced districts of San Francisco. The shipyard eventually closed in the 1970s and was declared an EPA Superfund site in the 1980s. Without jobs, those who could move, did. Already exposed to economic instability, low community and education funding, and a health crisis, the community then suffered from the crack epidemic and the violence that followed.

Since the ‘90s, Bayview–Hunter’s Point has become a target for redevelopment. Even though the neighborhood is now receiving the funding and investment it deserves, much of that “revitalization” has led to displacement of the neighborhood’s original residents and outsiders still associate the area with homelessness and crime.

Still, members of the historic community who have called Bayview home before it was a hot prospect fight back. According to Mendoza, Old Skool has played a critical role in that fight. She points to the fact that more parks have been created in the neighborhood, as well as an incoming grocery store, a new bank and a community center as signs of progress.

“The power plant has been taken down,” added Mendoza. “Typically in POC neighborhoods, they build power plants and other toxic things because nobody fights it, but the community [in Bayview] fought it. It’s starting to feel more like a community than ever before, and Old Skool is an anchor in that change. You see people come and go, but they’ve impacted so many young people, and the community knows who they are.”

The nonprofit has to do a lot of fundraising to make up for the lack of foot traffic—but Goines says it’s worth it. “People would tell me, if you opened Old Skool anywhere else in the city you’d have a line out the door.” Instead, she wanted to locate it “in the epicenter of violence, right where hope and life is needed.”

For that reason, Goines felt the Old Skool space needed to be indulgent, elaborate, and sensuous. “If things feel run down or discarded, it impacts our psyches. I want them to get to come into a beautiful place that they helped build and to welcome people into a space full of safety, beauty, life, joy, and connection,” she says.

(Photo courtesy Old Skool Café)

Though a lot has changed since Old Skool was initially built, and it has become less taboo to hire formerly incarcerated folks in that time, it can still be difficult to reach people who aren’t currently impacted by incarceration or know someone who is. But part of the magic of the place is that it changes the power dynamic by making youth the hosts and gives them ownership of the space.

“It allows people to see the human in front of them,” says Goines. “You don’t see the worst thing this kid has ever done as all he is. You get to see his awkwardness, shyness, his dreams, etc.” Her hope is that the program changes the narrative about those suffering from violence in their communities. She wants these youth to live in a world where we can focus not only on their actions but the “why” behind them.

Mendoza adds that she has now been connected to the project for long enough to have watched a number of Old Skool graduates do things like attend four-year universities and start meaningful careers. One has even been able to buy a house. “A lot of these kids are part of the public school system, which hasn’t been properly resourced for decades,” she adds. “So to see this haven for them where they can build skills that will give them a livelihood is really beautiful. Teresa is mama for a lot of people.”

Goines sees Old Skool as a foundational part of a broader effort to treating young people better. “We had to prove a different way was possible. Now that we’ve created a community of people who have witnessed it, we can no longer say that jails and prisons are the best we can do,” she says. The result is 18 years of slow and meaningful progress, and a family of changemakers to carry on the message.

When asked about the legacy she hopes to create, Goines says, “I want my ceiling to be their floor.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: In order to protect the identity of the current and former youth employees the organization has asked that we not use their last names.

Gabrielle Lawrence is a writer and poet based in Los Angeles, on Tongva, Kizh, and Chumash land. They are currently the Managing Editor for TransLash News and Narrative, a trans storytelling platform. They have an MFA in Creative Writing, were a graduate fellow with The Oxford American Magazine, Editor-in-Chief of Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Managing Editor at The Tenth Magazine, an independent Black queer media organization.

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