A chipotle chicken sandwich with spinach, tomato and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread sits on a plate in the Foodlink Community Café, a “pay-it-forward cafe” which opened last year in downtown Rochester, New York.
The man behind the sandwich is Clayvon Fox, a recipient of this year’s Foodlink Career Fellowship, which offered yearlong classroom and hands-on training to prepare chefs from low-income and marginalized backgrounds for professional culinary careers.
“I came home from prison, and an employment caseworker at the halfway house told me about the fellowship,” Fox explains. “I’d worked in a few restaurants, and I love to cook, so she nominated me for the fellowship, and here I am, seven months later. I’m loving this.”
The bright café, adorned with a sunflower mural, is based at the Central Library of Rochester & Monroe County. The cafe’s pay-it-forward model means that everyone who enters can receive something to eat or drink. Patrons who can afford to are invited to tuck a few bills into the plexiglass box beside the register or add a digital donation to help fund community meals for those unable to pay full price. The cafe is one of a growing movement of pay-what-you-can restaurants across the country, seeking to provide a local solution to food insecurity while building community.
Jessica Scannell is the director of career empowerment initiatives at Foodlink, a Rochester-based nonprofit serving a 10-county area with a 11.1% of the population reports food insecurity. Rochester’s own food insecurity rate, the group says, is close to double that.
Foodlink staff launched the fellowship in 2018, asking community members to nominate individuals around the city who experienced barriers to employment but showed an affinity for cooking. It’s since become an official cook apprenticeship through the New York State Department of Labor.
“We have everything from pastors and teachers to caseworkers to parole officers – everybody nominates folks into the program,” Scannell explains. “Some fellows have just been released from federal prison. Some are in recovery; they’ve lost their careers because of addiction and they’re rebuilding. Some people are new immigrants to this country.”
She launched the cafe to give apprentices real-life experience in a fast-paced, public-facing environment, looking to the job training program at DC Central Kitchen for inspiration, as well as consulting with local and U.S.-based culinary programs in the network of the nonprofit Catalyst Kitchens.
Employee Joshua Wilcox on the first day of the cafe’s opening last year. (Photo courtesy of Foodlink)
Foodlink staff wrote a proposal for an apprenticeship tailored for marginalized demographics and their goals, which was approved by the state of New York and the Department of Labor. “Traditionally, the people who are at the top of a kitchen are white and male,” she says. “Our program is over 85% people of color and over 60% women. We want our graduates to lead kitchens throughout our community.”
Inside the cafe, apprentices gain experience as line cooks, runners and public-facing cashiers. Funding comes from the State Department of Labor, as well as from private foundations and individual donors. A local ad agency donated talent and labor to create a commercial for the cafe. The library charges Foodlink for utilities but asks little to no rent for the space.
Patricia Uttaro, director of Rochester Public Library & Monroe County Library System, says she appreciates how the cafe provides library patrons with a convenient place to grab a cup of coffee or an affordable lunch, especially during the winter months. The cafe gives everyone a place to shelter and have a cup of coffee during the day, she adds. “The cafe staff all wear shirts that state ‘Healthy food is a human right,’ and that resonates with everyone who visits. It removes the stigma of having to ask people on the street for money for a hot meal,” Uttaro explains. “Every single person who enters the cafe is treated with respect and dignity.”
Still, the cafe doesn’t break even. The $2 community meal costs $15 to prepare, and that preparation must be done at Foodlink’s commercial kitchen because there’s no storage at the cafe. Fellows gather an hour before opening to tote boxes of ingredients from Foodlink vans.
Applicants to the fellowship program must be able to lift 50 pounds, work on their feet for hours at a time, undergo physical and psychosocial evaluations, shadow chefs in the kitchen, and then take a cooking test. “We give them ingredients and say, ‘Cook for us,’” Scannell says. “Then we sit down and eat with them to assess their levels of self-awareness and how they accept feedback.”
Fox created a breakfast croissant for his cooking test. He’s been particularly grateful for Rouxbe, the curriculum purchased by Foodlink to train fellows. “We watch videos and read up on how to make sauces and how to cook leeks properly and learn how to bake pastries,” he explains. “You learn about allergies, you learn about poultry and fish, you learn about every type of plant-based meal. You take a live, graded test after each video to see how well you know what you’ve learned.”
Fellows receive transportation assistance to and from the program, as well as boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables. After three months in the program, they get a professional knife kit. “We want you to practice at home,” Scannell says, “and we’re encouraging nutritional changes as fellows learn about how what you put in your body impacts your life.” Foodlink pays fellows minimum wage until they reach 580 hours; then, they earn 50 cents to $1 more per hour while they’re still in the program.
Established chefs around the city come in to share areas of expertise; they’ve taught fellows the art of making pastry, of sushi preparation and sausage-making, and of plating a meal. “Part of what we’re doing here is dispelling preconceived notions about what a job training program at a local food bank looks like,” Scannell says. “I want folks to enter into job interviews with confidence, and I want them to blow people away.” To that end, Fellow’s graduate with a leather-bound portfolio full of industry-recognized certifications, professional references and high-quality photos of the food they’ve made.
Bre’onn Hepburn is supervisor at the Community Cafe. She already had a position as a cooking coach for Wegmans’ vast supermarket chain when she received a Foodlink Fellowship. A single mom going through a divorce, she appreciated the program’s holistic support. Fellows receive four years of engagement with the program—engagement which includes coaching with a certified financial consultant, updated Covid information, regular check-ins, new job alerts and social opportunities.
Bre’onn Hepburn, the new cafe supervisor, was a member of the Foodlink Career Fellowship’s first cohort. (Photo courtesy of Foodlink)
“For many of our folks, whoever their peer group was prior to coming into the program might look different from who their peer group needs to be once they leave,” Scannell explains. “Having a group that’s really interested in cooking, that’s interested in lifting each other up and staying connected has been important for a lot of our fellows. We hold folks to a very high standard, but we also meet them where they are to help them get there.”
Hepburn says the fellowship program had a significant impact on her life; she graduated with a longing to help newer fellows navigate its demands. “Life is really happening for our people in this program,” she explains. “I tell them, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ When they ask themselves what am I doing, do I really want to be a chef, do I really want to chop another bag of onions, I tell them, ‘Yes. Your goals are changing, and this will get better.’”
Graduates of the Foodlink fellowship work as supervisors in hotel chain restaurants, operate catering businesses, and working in kitchens at Wegmans. Typically, there’s a 30% attrition rate in the first three months of the program, Scannell says. However, this year, all the fellows who entered the program graduated. Most report jobs earning at least three dollars over minimum wage. All report feeling both food secure and more knowledgeable about how to eat a healthy diet.
While Fox is still in the program, he’s teaching his seven-year-old son to cook, with the goal of owning a food truck that specializes in international dishes. “My focus is on my son, and on my career,” he says. “It’s been amazing to me to see so many people change their lives through cooking.”
This story has been corrected to note that Rochester’s food insecurity rate is higher than the 11.1% previously stated and that the cafe’s community meals are heavily discounted for those who cannot afford full price, not free.
Melissa Hart is a journalist and author. Her most recent title is “Daisy Woodworm Changes the World.”