Hungry for Change: A Café That Serves More than Food

Curt's Café teaches job skills to keep young people out of jail.
August 17, 2014

On a cold Chicago day in 2006, Susan Trieschmann and other students in her community college class visited a juvenile detention facility. She listened to a group of young men talk about broken homes, troubled families and lost opportunities. “I heard their stories and listened with my heart,” Trieschmann says. “And I couldn’t get that out of my head.”

Those stories became her obsession. “I kept visiting the same theme,” says Trieschmann, who previously had run a successful catering business. “Our kids are getting arrested at an incredible rate. They’re getting incarcerated at an incredible rate.”

Trieschmann’s own childhood struggles stirred her empathy, and her work experience helped her come up with a way to turn lives around.

Trieschmann was born in Hialeah, Fla., and her father, a native of Guatemala, drowned when she was 7, leaving her mom to work and raise Susan and her five siblings. The family moved to suburban Chicago, where the girl helped her mother deliver eggs door to door from their station wagon. Her mom also was employed as a waitress at a country club where Susan began working at 13.

Although she went to secretarial school, Trieschmann continued to hold restaurant jobs, eventually becoming a catering director with a Chicago restaurant. On the side, she catered a few parties with her own startup. That business took off, so she quit her other job and invited her older sister, Nancy Sharp, and Nancy’s husband, Curt, to come up from Florida and join her company, Food for Thought. “None of us had college educations; none of us was rich,” says Trieschmann, recently honored by L’Oréal Paris as one of its “Women of Worth” for her extraordinary community service. “We worked really hard” and had about 300 employees at one point.

Then Curt died of lung cancer. “He was not only my business partner, but he was one of my best friends,” Trieschmann says. “I did some soul-searching. When he died, I asked myself, Is there something I haven’t tried? What maybe have I missed that I always wanted to do?

She landed on the idea of creating a café (named for her late brother-in-law) that offered job training and placement to 15- to 24-year-olds who have had contact with the juvenile justice system. Trieschmann wrote a business plan, crunched the numbers and realized it wasn’t financially feasible. Not wanting to ask others for money, she took out a home equity loan to establish Curt’s Café and covers her living expenses with proceeds from the sale of her stake in the catering company. The café, just north of Chicago in Evanston, Ill., is a place where customers “dine with purpose,” she likes to say.

To recruit participants into her program, Trieschmann met with a parole officer and staff at a youth job center, and she hired the first six in May 2012. They come to Curt’s Café five days a week for three months. Their eight-hour shifts begin with studying; some of them aim to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma while others meet with social workers.

Curt’s Café is a cozy spot filled with incandescent lamps, wood tables and chairs, a chalkboard menu, and communal dining room tables. Customers and staff know each other by name at the neighborhood hangout, and many of them volunteer in support of the restaurant’s mission to help young people redefine themselves and learn food-service job skills.

Trieschmann is modest about her role in the success of Curt’s Cafe. “I’m not the one doing the work here—it’s those kids sitting in there,” she says while pointing to a group in the dining room. “They deserve the recognition, and I don’t.”

“She really extends herself to these kids,” says Jeff Mackevich, a financial executive and musician who volunteers at Curt’s Cafe. “Once they get in, they’re in. Sometimes they have issues, and she unconditionally accepts them. You can see pronounced changes in their personalities and confidence.”

Lori Dube, another volunteer and director of community relations, has watched Trieschmann work long days at the café. “She’s really driven and has a huge heart for this population,” Dube says. “She wants this to be a new start and treats them with a lot of respect and a lot of love. There are not a lot of questions about their past.”

But it’s their pasts that led them here. “Most have been incarcerated,” Trieschmann says. “Most have not graduated high school. Many have been homeless. These kids are hard. They’re the roughest of the rough. That’s what I wanted.”

She says her outreach is simple instinct. “I am a mom, so I come at it as a mom. I can love them to pieces, I can discipline them, and I can suggest they can be knuckleheads. I’m not a social worker. I see them as children, not a diagnosis.”

So far, about 30 have been through the program, with roughly 75 percent landing jobs. “Only one has gone to jail. I want to keep them out of the system. That’s super-important,” Trieschmann says. “We give them hope, but they have to have the strength to make it happen for themselves.”

One of Curt’s Café success stories is Christopher Jemison, a college dropout who often slept on people’s floors, sometimes with no place to spend the night. “I was basically on the verge of homelessness,” he says. “I had no money, no job, nothing.”

Through a youth employment program, he was referred to Curt’s Café and moved in with his sister, who previously had kicked him out. “Curt’s helped me learn some life lessons that I needed. I learned a lot about culinary arts. I learned about family.” Jemison now works as a Starbucks barista, “making people laugh and be happy—that’s what I try to do every day.”

Trieschmann knows that “getting too involved with the kids and having your heart broken [is] a huge challenge…. Loving them and giving them everything and having them get arrested again hurts… every single  time.”

When the going is tough, she looks to great outcomes like Jemison. Trieschmann recently gave him a big hug at Starbucks on his 25th birthday. “If I need energy, all I  have to do is see him. I just love him, and I am so proud of him—all of them, actually.”

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