Curt’s Cafe celebrates a decade of second chances


Isabelle Butera/The Daily Northwestern

Curt’s Café in Evanston is staffed by students between the ages of 15 and 24 in at-risk situations. The café serves breakfast and lunch, Tuesday through Saturday.

Isabelle Butera, Reporter

Five years ago, 18-year-old John Thomas felt like he had run out of chances.

Thomas had neither a high school diploma nor a social security card, making it nearly impossible for him to find a legal source of income, he said. Instead, he enrolled in the workforce training program at Curt’s Café.  Thomas — now a general manager at the café — said the program completely changed his life for the better. 

“​​I don’t really know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for me walking into those doors,” he said. 

Curt’s Café, an Evanston restaurant providing employment opportunities for young adults in at-risk situations, celebrated its 10-year anniversary Sunday. The café, which first opened in May 2012, employs student trainees between the ages of 15 and 24 with backgrounds ranging from food insecurity, history of incarceration, or noncompletion of high school. To date, the café has helped more than 500 students.

The Curt’s Café team and its corporate partners gathered with community members in the International Friendship Garden at the Rotary Club of Evanston  to celebrate the anniversary with a picnic and walk around the gardens. Curt’s employees, graduates and program administrators spoke to the cafe’s successes. 

“It’s ridiculously exciting,” Director of Development Tami Manton said. “We’ve come a long way from year one, and we just want to celebrate with our community.”

The program’s main goal is to provide an alternative to reincarceration for young participants who were previously in the criminal justice system, founder and Executive Director Susan Trieschmann said. The program has about a 1% recidivism rate over the past decade, compared to Illinois’ youth recidivism rate of 87% – meaning 1% of those entering Curt’s Café from the criminal justice system reentered the system after graduating from the cafe’s training program. 

Program Director Greg King said Curt’s Café aims to center students’ needs. The cafe’s training curriculum was revamped recently, basing 80% of the new curriculum on student feedback, he said

Students work for three months in the café, learning skills relevant to culinary, barista and customer service positions. They also take life skills classes for an hour every day, covering a range of topics such as social-emotional learning, professional networking and managing finances.  

King said he notices a change in how students carry themselves as they progress through the program. 

“They’re definitely more confident in who they are,” he said. “They’re confident in what they have to offer the world.”

During its first decade of operation, Curt’s Café expanded to a second location in Highland Park and now serves youths in Cook and Lake County.

While Trieschmann is stepping down as executive director this year, she said she hopes Curt’s Café continues to inspire individuals to treat adolescents in at-risk situations with the same compassion as they show their own children. 


“Many people… believe that it’s our kids’ fault that they’ve done what they’ve done,” she said. “So we judge based on things that we don’t have any relationship to… our (own) children have never had to worry about having a place to put their heads.” 

Trieschmann said she hopes Curt’s Café continues to show community members and elected officials that youth in at-risk situations can achieve at a high level in the job field if their own experiences are centered within a compassionate and supportive environment.

Thomas said this compassion kept him in the program. While he restarted the program several times, he said a social worker at Curt’s Café connected with him by listening to his story and showing a willingness to listen that he found deeply comforting. 

Through his work at the program, Thomas said he aims to help his students feel understood, treating them with humility and respect as he works to honor the cafe’s mission.

“There’s always a second chance at Curt’s Café,” Thomas said. “And if you need more chances, there are third and fourth chances too.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabelle_butera

Related Stories: 

After over a year of Zoom classes, Curt’s Café celebrates educators

Curt’s Café expands to Highland Park

Evanston Organizes: Curt’s Café reflects on success and growth as a staple of the community