Dennis Bagneris could talk for hours about the mission of Liberty's Kitchen, the nonprofit café and catering kitchen dedicated to providing a path to self-sufficiency for New Orleans youth. Bagneris has served as Program Manager at Liberty's Kitchen since its formation in 2009 and emphasizes the importance of employability and access to services for the youth who participate in the culinary and life skills training program.
The kitchen, located on South Broad Street, combines culinary leadership, case management, educational programming, and job placement services and/ or a return to an educational setting. Youth gain experience preparing healthy meals for schoolchildren at New Orleans College Prep Charter School and working at the espresso bar and full-service kitchen in Liberty's retail café, in addition to receiving education in professional development from Bagneris. What makes Liberty's Kitchen different from other culinary employability programs, Bagneris said, is the focus on addressing outside needs for youth, such as housing, health, and childcare, in addition to the employment training.
"If you train somebody to do a job very well but ignore the fact that they don't have a house or childcare," Bagneris said, "what's the point?"
The 12-week program imparts job experience and soft skills that are transferable in the work environment, and prepares youth to be able to rise in careers involving culinary, customer service, and hospitality skills and experience. An application process, shadow day, and orientation help Liberty's Kitchen staff identify obstacles and needs for each participant, including childcare, housing, health, or education needs. Applicants will be asked to reapply at a later time if they are not currently performing at a 6th to 8th grade academic level or above, have not finished high school or are not in the process of getting a GED, or demonstrate issues with authority. Liberty's staff is able to direct youth in need of these services to literacy facilities or GED preparation programs. Part of the initial orientation for youth who get into the program involves setting up a bank account, Medicaid, an appointment with a physician, and attending a training on stress and anger management.
After orientation, students progress through "tiers" in the program, from working in the preparation of 900 to 1000 meals per day in the school kitchen, to gaining customer service experience at the barista bar, to preparing cold foods at the retail café and focusing on teamwork, to working with hot foods at the café and focusing on the presentation of food for customers. Bagneris stresses the importance of teaching youth that the level of pride they have for the food they make is transferred to the customers. The program also focuses on positive reinforcement. A server in the café received a compliment from a customer about a salad he made, and Bagneris smiled. "These little things are magnified," he said.
Youth also have opportunities to attend large events for the catering program, which can expand their world views, Bagneris said. "If we want these young people to grow we have to show them those opportunities, that New Orleans is a much bigger environment than they think it is," he said.
At the end of the 12-week program, Bagneris works with youth on their resumes and setting up interviews. Liberty's Kitchen has relationships with many local restaurants who know the quality of the training program, and is continuing to develop more, including partnerships with the Marriot Hotel and Whole Foods. Officially, 95% of Liberty's Kitchen students find jobs within 30 days of completing the program, but Bagneris said he normally aims for students to be employed within a week of graduation. After that, Liberty's hopes to remain a source of contact for its graduates for any issues, and tracks data on graduates for at least a year after program completion.
At the end of 2013, Liberty's Kitchen will be moving to its new location in the ReFresh Project at 300 N. Broad Street, in the former Schwegmann's supermarket building. The new location will boast three times the amount of space in the current café, and Liberty's hopes to incorporate outdoor seating and additional registers to be able to serve more customers and involve more youth in their programming.
"We are at a point now we can triple the number of students we have the capacity to see– we just don't have the space for them now," Bagneris said. "If we could catch more kids on a regular basis, we can get the kids who would have fallen through the cracks."
He is also looking forward to the opportunity to partner with other organizations in the building for programming and selling more meals. "I think moving into the Refresh will help us not feel as much like were going it alone. We're already servicing a lot of people; we can effect larger change on a more rapid scale," Bagneris said. A partnership with Whole Foods could involve selling meals-to-go made by Liberty's students in the grocery store. Liberty's also hopes to expand its partnerships with New Orleans schools in the coming years, by about one to two schools per year, which will also allow the program to work with more youth.
In the end, Liberty's Kitchen is focused on its mission of serving and providing opportunities for New Orleans youth, and that will never change, Bagneris said.
Liberty's Kitchen is located at 422 ½ South Broad Street, and is open from 8 am – 2 pm, Monday through Friday.