In Focus: A second chance at Curt’s Cafe

Susan Du

Latava Jones of the South Side has gotten up at 4 a.m. every day for the past three weeks to commute to her job as line manager at the newly opened Evanston restaurant Curt’s Cafe. It’s not exactly Jones’ dream job – she hopes to work as a massage therapist one day – but the 22-year-old recovering heroin addict is just grateful for employment.

Jones served three years in prison on a burglary conviction before finding a job through her involvement with Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a Chicago-based restorative justice program. There, she met Curt’s Cafe owner Susan Trieschmann.

“(Trieschmann) just wants me to get past that point in my life,” Jones said. “She’s still a little iffy that I might fall back, but she won’t express it, but I can just tell. So I’m not going to let her down and I’m not going to let myself down.”

Coffee shops are abundant in Evanston. Ex-offender re-entry programs, however, are a little harder to find.

Curt’s Cafe, 2922 Central St., is an unlikely crossroads for the two: Trieschmann hires at-risk young adults, particularly those with criminal records, providing them with hard-to-find job training and work experience. The non-profit restaurant is one of the only adult ex-offender re-entry programs in a city that focuses most of its re-entry resources on at-risk youths.

Trieschmann said the road to opening the experimental business was far from smooth, with some neighbors concerned about the business drawing former criminals to Central Street. Still, it’s an experiment that restorative justice advocates and even Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said is worth a shot.

“I’ve learned that our children have really hard lives, and I’ve learned that we don’t handle it very well and that no child should have to go through what these kids go through,” Trieschmann said with tears in her eyes. “And I don’t know why it is. I don’t know if it’s the parents or the community, but their lives are not fair. I can only speak for myself, but I’m glad I stepped up when I did.” Finding a home for Curt’s

Trieschmann, who co-founded Restorative Justice Evanston seven years ago and operated the for-profit catering service Food For Thought, said the cafe is not completely in the business of doing business.

“I listen to my heart, take a lot of deep breaths and try to make it right for the future of a child instead of the future of a business,” Trieschmann said. “I just needed to listen to myself more, and I haven’t done that for a while. I really was a good businesswoman, but now I wear a different hat.”

Curt’s Cafe employs five to six young adults at a time for three-month training programs. Employees work eight-hour shifts, which include an hour of independent study and a daily circle in which they sit together and revisit their personal development and re-entry experience.

Trieschmann said in addition to making the personal transition from a for-profit to nonprofit mindset, she faced challenges of training at-risk students and warming up her Central Street neighbors to the idea of a restorative justice restaurant.

“(The community) has embraced us great,” Trieschmann said of most customers who drop in. “They’ve been really warm, and for never having advertised, having people come in is pretty good.”

However, she said when Curt’s Cafe was first proposed, she received some reports that a neighborhood group was concerned about the restaurant’s concentration of ex-offenders. Only after meeting with Evanston police was Trieschmann able to explain her ambitions for the cafe and settle neighbors’ qualms.

After three weeks in business, Curt’s Cafe’s story has attracted a faithful clientele that swarms the counter during lunch hour. The students, who were trained on the spot since day one, have mastered the menu. The improvement has been significant, considering employees still struggled to make coffee at the end of the first week and were often late for work, Trieschmann said.

Trieschmann said she knows her employees require some accommodations. She allows her employees to make sandwiches in the kitchen, for instance, so they don’t have to face patrons if they make a mistake.

But for the most part, they have been lauded by patrons, said Marian Kurz, a local small business owner.

“I felt there was genuine feeling on his part that he wanted to please me as a customer,” Kurz said. “I don’t think (Curt’s Cafe) is in business in this particular case to make a whole lot of money, but they have a mission behind what they’re doing. I think it’s a good location, and as more people get the word of what it’s all about, I think it can be very successful. I’d like it to be.” “They wanted jobs”

Local youth receive criminal records and serve time in prison for a variety of reasons, but often the underlying factors that lead them to offend in the first place are more universal: poverty, the lack of family support or inaccessibility to community resources, according to Northwestern sociology Prof. Mary Pattillo.

Ex-offender re-entry programs take many forms in communities across the country, be it a halfway house or a job training program. However, there are not nearly enough re-entry programs to serve those who need them, Patillo said.

Evanston currently does not have official adult re-entry services.

Pattillo said the list of things ex-offenders need to successfully reintegrate into society is extensive, and the re-entry process is made increasingly difficult when ex-offenders in many parts of the country are ineligible to live in public housing, receive many public sector benefits or cast votes. Coupled with the stigma associated with having a criminal record, it can be difficult for ex-offenders to get jobs and become financially independent, she said.

“Those various forms of exclusion make it very difficult for people to get back on their feet,” Pattillo said. “These are places that we need to make headway in actually reintegrating people rather than continuing their exclusion and stigma.”

She said reforms the justice system can undertake in order to facilitate re-entry include making prison a place where people can finish their high school studies or receive a GED as well as gain job training.

At-risk youth in Evanston have the opportunity to participate in a variety of community activities, including events like the Mayor’s Safe Summer Summit. Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said although the 2011 summit attracted many kids, it failed to address the obstacles to the re-entry of adult ex-offenders.

“(The Safe Summer Summit) didn’t really do much for the 18- to 25-year-olds,” she said. “I met with them and they said they weren’t really interested in bouncing basketballs. They wanted jobs, which is what I want them to want.”

“A sense of investment”

Although Evanston doesn’t have official re-entry programs for adult offenders, the city does provide a variety of support programs for its youth.

Evanston Police Department’s Youth Services division offers services to mediate conflicts between youth offenders and victims, often working in conjunction with local volunteer group Restorative Justice Evanston to implement peer jury at Evanston Township High School. Their efforts often involve gathering all participants in a particular conflict so everyone can express their views. In cases of recurring misbehavior or when family or community issues are factors, EPD’s social services are often called for assistance.

Patrice Quehl, EPD youth advocate, said social service intervention is the EPD Youth Services’ first priority for juvenile offenders.

“The whole system is set up for a graduated response for juvenile crime,” she said. “We always support parental involvement. This way we try to bring ev
eryone together to provide a meaningful response to what has happened and make things right.”

Quehl said with the help of EPD Youth Services’ restorative justice program, 70 to 85 percent of participants do not reoffend.

The Moran Center for Youth Advocacy as well as the Youth Job Center are local organizations that work in collaboration with Curt’s Cafe. With the restaurant’s opening, representatives from both agencies said they are grateful for a business in Evanston where they can send their at-risk clients.

Naria Santa Lucia, executive director of the Moran Center, said many of her clients are youths who have never succeeded in the traditional sense. They are teens who have heard all their lives that they can’t succeed, which is why the opportunity to work with Trieschmann is so valuable.

“It’s having that ability to really uncover those diamonds in the rough,” Santa Lucia said of the cafe. “(Trieschmann) has a dream and vision about this place, so just on her sheer will alone, I know it will succeed. Having the opportunity to receive job training in a really nurturing place with a mission that is set up to serve exactly our clients with their specific needs is really, really needed.”

The Youth Job Center, which has experienced difficulties finding youth jobs in a tough economy, also must deal with the challenge of finding jobs for ex-offender clients, said employer outreach coordinator Jordan Burghardt. Two of the center’s clients are currently working at Curt’s Cafe.

“I can tell that they have a sense of investment in the company because it’s kind of a social experiment,” Burghardt said. “It’s just a really exciting thing to see somebody who doesn’t have as many options available to them because of barriers to finally get an opportunity and have ownership, so it’s a really empowering thing to watch.”

For Jones, participating in restorative justice programs has helped to talk openly about her struggles with heroin. In fact she attracted Trieschmann’s attention while telling her redemption story to seventh and eighth graders at the Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park. Working in Curt’s Cafe in particular has helped her to connect with an employer who wasn’t just a boss, but also a friend.

“(Trieschmann) tells me that if I ever feel like falling back into that state of mind, just call her, just get it out,” Jones said.

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