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The Town Kitchen offers job skills, second chances, to the formerly incarcerated

on December 13, 2017

Fresh bread is baking in the oven. Feet shuffle swiftly along the kitchen floors. Chefs begin bagging and packing food to go. Two deliverers place big black boxes on carts to wheel to their vehicle. Inside each one are several neatly packaged white boxes filled with lunch orders. About seven people dance around the kitchen to assist them with the deliveries. Smooth 90’s R&B plays in the background while the staff works in unison.

The chefs in this kitchen aren’t your typical cooks. They do not have extensive culinary backgrounds, nor do they come from a prestigious cooking school. Many have served time in jail and are seeking to reenter society. The Town Kitchen has given them that opportunity.

The Town Kitchen is a restaurant that employs and trains low-income Bay Area youth, ages 16 to 24, in food preparation and entrepreneurial skills. UC Berkeley graduate Sabrina Mutukisna and former Google chef Jefferson Sevilla founded the restaurant in 2015. “Food can really bring people together,” Mutukisna said. “So much happens over a great meal. How can we use that to really keep young people together and support them through the long-time journey as well?”

After graduating college, Mutukisna operated her own cupcake company and then worked in youth workforce development for 15 years. Her passion for food and social work led her to open the restaurant. “This is definitely my life’s work, with JP, my sister Tara, and Jefferson,” she said, referring to Tara Mutukisna, a co-founder who helps the kitchen staff prepare the morning deliveries. JP Hailer serves as the director of the nonprofit’s programs.

Currently based in The Port Workspaces, located in downtown Oakland, the Town Kitchen office staff is expanding. The for-profit restaurant has created a nonprofit division by merging with the Youth Food Project, a nonprofit that trains young people in the food industry. While both divisions operate under the same Town Kitchen name, they each perform different tasks. The for-profit side of the organization works on preparing and selling food, while the nonprofit side continues to execute its original mission.

JP Hailer previously served as the Youth Food Project director. Like Mutukisna, she has an extensive background in youth workforce development. She said working with the Town Kitchen to provide formerly incarcerated youth with employment opportunities is a special task for her. “They are really the most vulnerable population, especially in terms of hiring. In Oakland, there is a big need for education opportunities and employment opportunities for that particular group of young people,” she said. “Being with youth every day who are starting on a new path is so fulfilling and exciting.”

“What’s special about this program to me is providing space for young people to see that there are other opportunities and be exposed to a group of people who really care about them,” Hailer continued. She added that the program also provides “practical skills that they can take with them.”

“It’s jobs for young people who need it the most,” agreed Mutukisna.

According to the Kids Count Data Center project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy that advocates for children’s health, in 2015, California had 6,726 incarcerated people under the age of 21.

In 2016, The Alameda County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to implement a reentry hiring program for the formerly incarcerated. The nonprofit department of the Town Kitchen is also receiving county funding to help conduct trainings and workshops.

Oakland Food Policy Council executive director Shaniece Alexander said it is important to train young people in restaurant skills, because “specifically, in California, the food service is a big industry. It’s actually one of the largest industries in the country. There are a lot of transferable job skills that come from working in a kitchen and working with food that is beneficial, no matter where you should end up working.”

Having worked with formerly incarcerated youth herself, she applauds the restaurant’s focus on them. “In the society, we live in the expectation is that you serve time, come back to your community and you’re able to get a job. But, that’s not really how it actually works. So many times, there is a lot of prejudice against folks who have backgrounds,” Alexander said. “If we can create opportunities within the food industry who may have a barrier to finding permanent employment, then it often gives them a sense of purpose and it actually helps them keep them from ending up back in jail.”

The Town Kitchen staff also tries to assist the broader food community. The restaurant partners with local farmers and fishermen, including the Water 2 Table Fish Co., to acquire fresh ingredients. Currently, the restaurant is partnering with Ron and Rhonda Persons of Chef Ron’s Pastries to sell fresh-baked cookies. “It’s really important for us to be able to work with other folks of color, and women, that will also employ young people coming out the nonprofit’s training programming,” said Mutukisna.

One of the staffers working with Hailer to create the best training possible is Joevone Elster, who serves as the nonprofit program coordinator. Starting when he was about 22 years old, Elster served a prison sentence for his role in a robbery that led to the death of a man. He now uses his job to help counsel young people about taking better actions moving forward. “It reminds me of when I was young, when I was a kid, making impulsive decisions and doing things I shouldn’t have done. I like to be able to give back and help them before they make the wrong and bad decisions,” Elster said. “I give them my experience in life, how you can start off wrong but end up doing great things. I like to be an example for the youth.”

The Town Kitchen has created its own unique model for employment. First, interested applicants apply online and submit a resume. Some applicants are recommended to the Town Kitchen. For example, a case manager at Santa Rita Jail has sent numerous candidates to the restaurant.

If selected, the trainees much complete a 60-hour week-long training. Following the training, students must complete a three-month paid probationary internship with the Town Kitchen. During the internship, trainees are monitored on their progress within the kitchen. After the completing the training, students are eligible for college credit from the San Francisco State University within the Africana Studies Department and are offered a full-time job with the restaurant. Trainees also receive their food handlers’ license. Some trainees have found employment with companies partnering with the restaurant.

With a new group of trainees, Hailer and Elster diligently prepare for the new staff for the first week of workshops. Resume tips, kitchen safety rules, social skills and how to properly handle food and are just a few workshops on the agenda. Hailer and Elster also recently arranged for the trainees to view the movie “13th” by award-winning director Ava Duvernay. The documentary focuses on the disproportionate number of African American in the prison system. Hailer and Elster felt it was important for trainees to understand the impact the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, has in today’s society. During training, business owners and formerly incarcerated people often visit the workshops to share more knowledge with the participants.

The trainees also begin to learn the restaurant’s diverse menu, which is reshaped every few weeks. Customers can select a hot buffet lunch, a boxed lunch or breakfast, and snack options. A few items on the hot buffet lunch category include a roasted chicken with olive tapenade, seared black bean cakes with cilantro cream or roasted potatoes with fried garlic, green chile, and herb oil.

Mutukisna has watched her small start-up blossom into the thriving restaurant it is today. She attributes the success of her company to the resilient of the office and kitchen staff. “We’re working with re-entry youth and foster youth and that’s really important to me, Joevone, and JP. It’s a population I want to make sure we’re supporting in a really meaningful way,” she said.

The morning deliveries have left the kitchen, and now the staff is prepping food for the following day as well as incoming orders. Their movements are in sync with each other as they begin to make the meals. The bacon sizzling on the grill smells even better than it looks. Two chefs slice appealing green and red apples by hand and place them in a bowl. Another chef is cutting tofu. Sous Chef Erik Cordova calls out, “Who is preparing the tuna melts? We need two.” An eager young chef begins preparing a mouthwatering sandwich.

On the other side of the kitchen, Cordova is carving up an enormous amount of raw beef. Cordova has worked with the Town Kitchen for a few years now. He previously worked as a sous chef for another restaurant. When he discovered the Town Kitchen, he said, he instantly knew he wanted to be involved. “I don’t consider this my job. It’s like a passion of mine,” he said. “I want to teach the kids if you can start now and have the passion and drive, we can give you the tools for that. But, you’re going to have to want it and help yourself out.”

One of the vibrant young people on the cooking staff in is Marcus Murphy. Murphy, like many of the kitchen staff, has previously served time. Today, the Bay Area native is singing songs, cracking jokes and keeping the energy in the kitchen positive. While his demeanor is playful, he is very knowledgeable about the inner working of the kitchen. As a child, he said, his mother encouraged him to learn how to prepare food. His brother, who is also a Town Kitchen chef, encouraged Murphy to apply for the program. With only a few months of experience, Murphy helps assist other new cooks and encourages others to apply. “If I’m here you’re going to laugh and smile regardless of how hard your morning was. If my morning was hard, usually people try to pick me up here,” he said.

As the day comes to a close, the chefs clean the countertops, sweep the floors and wash all the dishes. Although the music is still playing in the background, the rushed atmosphere in the kitchen has drastically quieted down. Cordova is excitedly imagining all the activities he can share with the new trainees at the next workshop. He is leaning towards a “salsa challenge,” but he is unsure if he will lead with that activity tonight.

Murphy is also wrapping up his day, preparing to head home. His food has long since been prepared and served to customers. He says that for him, the Town Kitchen is more than a job. It is hope for a better future. “This is my first consistent job since I got out,” he said. “I got to buy my daughter five outfits and three pairs of shoes for the first time since I’ve been home and she’s been in my life. That’s basically the only thing I can really say I’m proud of.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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