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Old Skool Café: Making a Difference – San Francisco Bay Times

By David Landis–

San Francisco is reputed to have more restaurants per capita than perhaps anywhere in the world. But there’s one culinary institution—now celebrating 10 years—that’s a standout for how it’s helping our community’s most vulnerable youth. That place: the Old Skool Cafe in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunter’s Point. The brainchild of founder/CEO Teresa Goinesthe organization describes itself as “a faith-based, violence prevention program that provides job training, employment and a second chance at life by way of a 1920’s speakeasy, jazz restaurant run by at-risk, formerly incarcerated and foster care youth ages 16 –22.”

I had the pleasure of visiting this restaurant/club/social justice changer pre-pandemic for a delicious jazz brunch on their plaza. Sadly, the restaurant closed during COVID. What better way to remind us of their good works than now, following its re-opening and during its milestone anniversary year?

The following is my pre-COVID conversation with Old Skool Café’s dynamic Director of Communications, Becca Eliasen—talking about how the café came to be, what its goals are, and what you can expect when you visit.

Gay Gourmet: How did Old Skool Café come into existence?

Becca Eliasen: Founder Teresa Goines worked as a juvenile probationary officer and at a boys’ camp. She would see youth get motivated, but they would keep coming back. She took time to listen to them to learn what it would take to help them. What they said was, “We feel the pressure from family members to participate in this lifestyle (and gangs). What we need are jobs and money.” She wanted to replicate the structure of jobs that pay real money—have a team and community with healthy relationships. She decided on restaurants because they are available in every town. Teresa had no restaurant experience before this. This is a hard industry to break into, but she knew it would be the vehicle to provide transformation for young people. We run it like a family. A restaurant is a pressure cooker. It’s a safe place for young people to learn skills. It’s in the middle of the community where most of our young people live. We want to stay in the community because we want the talent to stay in the Bayview, but we welcome people from all over the Bay Area—people who may never interact with the community. We want to show each other the community. It’s good for our youth and for our guests.

2005 was the official nonprofit start date for Old Skool Cafe. We began with pop-ups, we did networking events, and we created Thanksgiving baskets and dropped them off. We worked with restaurants around the city like Farmer Brown and did a pop-up brunch, as well as catered events. In 2011, we opened our brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Bayview.

Gay Gourmet: What are some of Old Skool Café’s best success stories?

Becca Eliasen: For a lot of our youth, this is the first time they thought about college. A requirement is that they need to be attending and caught up in school. Since they’re on the payroll, it’s a great motivator for them to stay in school. One of our youth, Isaac, is now taking classes at City College. Bon Appetit Management Company is one of our partners and they run a lot of the large cafeterias for universities and companies—they often hire our apprentices. We were able to open a kiosk at Chase Center. Our youth are between the ages of 16 and 22. They are first trainees, in a 12-week bootcamp program; then they are hired on as apprentices (that’s the 2-year part of the program); at the end, they’ll be placed in an externship with one of our partner programs like Michael Mina or Bon Appetit. Then they have the tools they need to apply for a job or go back to school. We don’t do job placement, but they work with job coaches throughout their time with us. Apprentices are involved in every aspect of what we’re doing—many of the dishes come from their own background. That’s important to us, to bring people together with comfort food from around the world. So, for instance, we showcase Jordan’s fried chicken; Daniel’s gumbo; and a Tongan ceviche from Tammy and her mom de ella. The youth and their family teach everyone about the dish and why it’s important to them. We offer these as a special for a month. Isaac and his mother taught everyone how to make pozole. What makes our menu so wonderful is it pulls in all these cultures and showcases dishes you might not find anywhere else.

When it comes to the food (and service), the Gay Gourmet contests. Having visited Old Skool Café pre-pandemic, I can vouch for the tasty shrimp ‘n’ grits. The servers are well-trained and welcoming. The live jazz with a talented trio adds the right element of upbeat music. (Please note: the Old Skool Café is currently open Thursdays–Saturdays for dinner only.)

Gay Gourmet: You’re celebrating your 10th anniversary. That’s quite an accomplishment!

Becca Eliasen: And it is. Our founder, Teresa, sums it up nicely: “Our hearts are full of gratitude for our incredible community of support, who have made this 10-year anniversary possible. From our faithful diners to donors to collaborative partners and volunteers, it’s this loving Old Skool village that has provided our youth an opportunity to heal and thrive!”

Gay Gourmet: How has COVID affected your operations?

Becca Eliasen: We are being nimble and this pandemic has propelled us to innovate what we’re doing and try new revenue streams. COVID has been a catalyst for that. It’s been hard, but it’s been great for innovation. We’ve had the support of our community, donors, and volunteers. Yes, we want to invest in young people of color and be part of that empowerment right now. We are sowing the seeds—and we will see the harvest at the other end of this. We will have a wonderful future.

Gay Gourmet: How do kids get into the program?

Becca Eliasen: It’s a self-selecting process. We get referrals from probation officers, judges, schools—a young person may be coming up against obstacles. The primary demographic are at-risk, formerly incarcerated, youth aging out of foster care; anyone facing challenges in school and the workplace. Sometimes a sibling or a friend will refer someone. We ask a lot of our youth and there’s great reward at the end. Some youth may not believe the program is for them, but then they may come back six months or 2 years later to the program.

Gay Gourmet: How many kids does Old Skool Cafe serve?

Becca Eliasen: There are 3 trainee cohorts a year (10–15 in a cohort), so about 40 to 50 youth in the program. There are about 20–30 in what we call our “entertainment track.” We present live jazz every day we’re open. All are youth entertainers. They do not have to have an at-risk background, but they need to be younger than 22 and excellent musicians. We offer them paid gigs, an opportunity to develop their repertoire, have a stage where they get exposure and make money. They get excited about what we’re doing and giving back to the community. As an example, trumpet player Ben donates what he makes at Old Skool back to our organization.

Gay Gourmet: What other programs do you offer?

Becca Eliasen: Everyone in the restaurant program does life skills classes with coaches once a week. These include such topics as emotional regulation, writing a resume, registering to vote, and using their voice in public. Individually, they also meet with life coaches at least once a week, but they have access to coaches every day.

Gay Gourmet: What about housing and food?

Becca Eliasen: When COVID first started, we worked with a lot of community therapists. We partner with other organizations that complement our services. We were able to work with Sunset Food Services and Ajani to drop off food boxes if youth needed it; or work with partner organizations like the Stand Together Foundation that helped our youth get a cash grant if their family lost a job; or assist with housing through organizations like Huckleberry Youth Programs and Larkin Street Youth Services, especially if they’re not in a safe environment.

Gay Gourmet: What’s the future for Old Skool Cafe?

Becca Eliasen: We’d like to have an Old Skool Café restaurant in every city in the Americas. We want youth to be thriving. We have a great program to help them grow and shine and be healthy adults in the community. That’s our big goal. People are so welcome at Old Skool. Every time you dine at Old Skool you’re making a huge impact on youth in the city and we’re grateful for all of our guests. Come and see what it’s all about.

Bits and Bites

Some new happenings in the Castro: I’ve heard good things about the sophisticated new lobby-bar at the Hotel Castro (on 18th Street), run by Jesse Woodward and Blake Seely, the partners behind the always-packed hi-tops bar on Market. I’ll visit and report back soon. The Academy on Market Street is always doing something innovative and fun, including wine tastings, live jazz and, especially for women, the popular Divas and Drinks series. Drag brunches are back at Harvey’s and they’re a hoot! And one of my favourites, Poetry, is opening its new downstairs casual breakfast/lunch eatery. The design is gorgeous and owner Francesco has built a new stairway to get to the upstairs courtyard so you don’t have to traipse through the kitchen anymore.

In other news, I was lucky enough to tour the new luxury senior residences on Van Ness called the Coterie Cathedral Hill. These all-rental units are stunning (but pricey), beautifully designed—and some have terrific views. But the best part is that the Coterie has a swanky lounge, plus two delicious restaurants: one more casual and one more upscale (unfortunately, only open to residents and guests). Under the direction of consulting chef David Lawrence (whom some may remember from his popular 1300 Fillmore restaurant), the food shines. Our lunch started with a glass of light, dry Albariño and a crisp Sauvignon Blanc (yes, Blanche, they have a great wine list!). From there we sampled fresh, pickled shrimp, an innovative kale salad, a delicious cheeseburger, a bouillabaisse brimming with seafood (including lobster!) and delicate but flavorful tempura fried chicken and waffles. So, when you’re getting ready for that next chapter of your life, check out Coterie!

We don’t know exactly when, but in the next few months, the massive new Italian food hall, Eataly at the Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose, opens its 45,000 square foot, three-story emporium to the Bay Area. Stay tuned for details!

Old School Cafe: https://www.oldskoolcafe.org/
Lobby Bar: https://thehotelcastro.com/eat-drinks/
The Academy: https://www.academy-sf.com/
Harvey’s: https://harveyssf.com/
Poetry: https://www.poesiasf.com/
Coterie Cathedral Hill: https://tinyurl.com/yw4d86t6
Eataly at Westfield Valley Fair: https://tinyurl.com/4rh45vze

David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: davidlandissf@gmail.com Or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

Published May 19, 2022

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