New Kelso coffee shop gives unemployed chance at a fresh start

A boarded-up Kelso tavern has been transformed into a charming cafe and coffee shop that provides food service training for people needing a fresh start.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Lower Columbia CAP is holding a grand opening ceremony for Grounds for Opportunity, at 413 S. Pacific Ave. in downtown Kelso.

Managed by Chef Keven Robinson, the restaurant quietly opened for business Aug. 8. Already, it’s been a magnet for travelers coming through the Kelso Train Depot half a block away, said Tammy Davies, CAP’s senior nutrition and care services program manager. Neighborhood residents and business owners who’ve been keeping tabs on the renovations of the former Corner Tavern also have been stopping in for Starbucks coffee drinks, sandwiches, salads, soups, breakfast pastries, brownies and cookies.

In addition to teaching job skills in a 16-week culinary program, the restaurant serves as CAP’s central kitchen for daily preparation of Meals on Wheels and senior community lunches. Grounds for Opportunity also plans to host community cooking classes, evening activities, fundraisers and special occasion dinners, Davies said.

CAP Executive Director Ilona Kerby has been working on the project since 2006, when she first visited a program in Seattle based on the nationally successful Catalyst Kitchens model (formerly called Kitchens with Missions).

The goal is for the venture to make CAP, the area’s largest non-government social service organization, less dependant on government funding. Grounds for Opportunity is planned to sustain itself from its public restaurant and catering service, and it also will generate money to support Meals on Wheels and Help Warehouse, the clearing house for local food banks. Even the cash customers put in the tip jar on the cafe’s front counter doesn’t go to employees, but to Meals on Wheels, Davies said.

Last November, CAP finally broke ground on long-planned social enterprise, which is costing the social service agency $700,000. (The bulk of the funding, over $450,000, came through CAP board member pledges. Grants and other fundraising efforts made up the difference, according to CAP.)

Over the ensuing months, Longview contractor JH Kelly stripped the run-down building to the studs, elevated the roof and revamped the building’s plain facade. Portland-based Ankrom Moisan Architects, a firm with expertise in designing restaurants and kitchens, created the final design in consultation with Kerby and JH Kelly.

The cafe’s warm, wood-and-earth tone decor and tree mural symbolize Kelso’s logging industry roots, Davies said. A gleaming commercial kitchen takes up the other half of the 10,000-square-foot building, outfitted with costly equipment donated by a multitude of individuals, businesses, churches and organizations.

The training program teaches all aspects of the food preparation and service industry. Under the wing of Sous Chef Andre Foster, students start off learning to prepare large quantities of food for nursing homes, Meals on Wheels and catering. After a few weeks, they transition to cooking for the cafe, whipping up dressings and desserts from scratch and baking sandwich buns and pastries daily.

Slicing up a ripe cantaloupe in the back of the kitchen Friday, a white-smocked student reflected on her experience at Grounds for Opportunity.

“At first, it was all foreign and awkward, but it’s been good,” said Adrienne, 54, who declined to give her last name. “I learned how to cut. Turns out, I’ve been cutting wrong all these years.”

Once a substitute teacher, Adrienne was referred to the program by her social worker to get her retrained and give her something to put on her resume after a long employment gap, she said. Now, Adrienne’s long-term goal is to manage a restaurant. Barring that, she’d said she’d be happy working as a prep chef or sous (second in command) chef.

“I feel like I’m getting ready to join the workforce again,” she said.

Chef Robinson, who is the son of former Kelso City Manager Doug Robinson, said by the time students graduate, they’re ready to be a kitchen prep cook. One former student, Rick Wenner, was hired as a prep cook at Freddy’s Just for the Halibut in Longview after finishing the training program. Another student, Casey Barella, was hired at Hop-N-Grape restaurant in Longview. (Before Grounds for Opportunity was built, CAP’s culinary students trained in the kitchen at PeaceHealth on Broadway.)

“That’s what it’s going to be — a lot of restaurants giving them a chance,” Robinson said. “I would love to see them (restaurants) want to come to us instead of hiring off the street.”

Robinson has three students now but has room for eight. For now, all the students are in the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but Robinson plans to open up the free training to anyone who’s interested. Mainly, he’s looking for good attendance and willingness to work as a team.

“If you’re gone every other day, it’s not worth our time,” he said.

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