This New Orleans café is transforming the lives of young adults

Café Reconcile's innovative life skills and job training program assists young people from severely at-risk communities who desire to make a positive change in their lives.

New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood has undergone significant development in the last decade, with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Zeitgeist, and numerous restaurants and cafés popping up along the neighborhood’s primary thoroughfare, Oretha C. Haley Boulevard.

One local nonprofit, Café Reconcile, helped pave the way for this development, serving the city’s youth through a job training program housed in a restaurant space in the neighborhood.

Reconcile opened in the 1990s, when Central City had one of the highest murder rates per capita in the country. “Community members and local Jesuits put Café Reconcile in this neighborhood on purpose to begin to address barriers many residents faced,” says Kathy Litchfield, Reconcile’s program director.

Initially, the space functioned as an after-school center for kids.

“It was a way to get kids off the street between school and going home for the night,” Litchfield says. “Over time, we began serving older youth and preparing them for culinary hospitality.”

Café Reconcile works with New Orleans youth aged 16-24 by placing them in an eight-week program that first teaches participants soft skills, like conflict resolution and resiliency. Students also learn how to open a bank account, make a resume, and write a cover letter.

Group of young adults outside restaurant Reconcile's life and occupational skills training has evolved to prepare youth for success when they step into the workspace. (Photo: Café Reconcile)

They then spend six weeks in the café, learning how to work both front and back of house positions in a restaurant while earning up to $1,700. They work as servers, hosts, and cashiers, as well as doing dishes, food prep, and cooking in the kitchen. Reconcile also stays connected to participants for 12 months after the program, offering wrap-around services and help with job and internship placements.

“Fourteen percent of the population between the ages of 16 and 24 are disconnected from both education and employment,” Litchfield says. “In New Orleans, that translates into about 7,000 young people. We want to remove barriers that have kept them out of employment, and give them options for whatever their next step might be.”

Most young people qualify for the program. Interested parties only need to fill out an application and show up for an interview.

“We are a very open program and that’s very much intentional,” Litchfield says. “The only hard 'no' is a person who does not yet have child care, and in that scenario we ask them to come in and work with us and a social worker to access that care, and then we allow them to enroll in the following class. We want that young person to be able to show up everyday.”

young adults in training at restaurant The majority of the café trainers are graduates of the program who coach and mentor youth on a daily basis. (Photo: Café Reconcile)

The program currently graduates around 400 youths per year, and to date, more than 1,700 people have participated. Many students arrive at the program after a referral from local organizations like the Children’s Bureau and Covenant House.

“We also work closely with juvenile justice and Orleans Parish public defenders,” Litchfield says. “We do a lot of court advocacy and work with a high-needs population, and that’s our intention. We want everyone to feel welcome.”

The café itself is open for lunch on weekdays, and overseen by general manager Glenda Rhode-Pausina. It’s a large, open space, with ample sunlight. Usually busy, both front and back of house run seamlessly, with younger program participants shadowing those with more experience as they learn new positions.

The ambiance is casual and the price affordable, meaning that neighborhood residents, as well as business people from nearby offices, mingle together while they eat.

interior shot of cafe reconcile Café Reconcile is a destination lunch spot for a wide cross-section of New Orleanians. (Photo: Meghan Holmes)

Executive Chef Eugene Temple runs the kitchen with help from Sous Chef Joron Smith. The menu features quintessential New Orleans dishes like gumbo, red beans and rice, and poboys, as well as items more typically classified as soul food, like deep-fried turkey necks, white beans, and smothered okra. At the end of the meal, diners have the option to add a donation to the organization to their bill when they tip.

When participants finish the program, they join a large (and growing) alumni network that continues to offer them opportunities. Many come back to Reconcile to access services and support.

“We are working to build strong communities through economic development,” Litchfield says. “We want to help young people access support and resources, and for them to know that our door is always open.”

headshot of writer Meghan Holmes

Meghan Holmes is an Alabama-born, New Orleans-based freelance writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and is a fellow at Loyola's Institute of Environmental Communication. She also serves as project director of a nonprofit, Righteous Fur, working to connect regional artists and designers to nutria trappers in south Louisiana.

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