Curt’s Cafe, situated between a cleaner’s and a real estate office, smells of coffee and freshly cooked bacon. ‘The Classic,’ a soft torta hoagie with fried eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon and mayonnaise, is being prepared on the grill. It’s loud and bustling, with tables filled for work meetings and old friends reuniting over the sound of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin. The sprawling chalkboard menus list the espresso drinks and smoothies, and their counters are topped with biscuits, muffins, scones and prepackaged cereals. In a side room, a bookshelf is tucked in the corner with board games for children, including Evanstonopoly – a localized version of Monopoly. Fairy lights twinkle below a sign that declares, “With compassion and respect, we promote opportunity and success through food service, life skills, and job readiness training.”
That’s the mission of Curt’s Cafe, a restaurant opened in 2012 by executive director Susan Trieschmann and former colleague Lori Dube. The cafe seeks to improve the lives of at-risk young adults who have spent time in the criminal justice system or have experienced violence, homelessness or abuse.
Each year, 30 teenagers and young adults, ranging from 15-to-24 years old work at the restaurant and participate in a three-month program that includes life skills counseling, mentoring and career coaching to empower them to enter the workforce.
Students earn a stipend of $50 for an eight-hour shift. They’re paid below minimum wage because the Curt’s program is based on student learning, not traditional employment, according to Trieschmann. During shifts, students learn essential restaurant skills like how to make sandwiches and lattes, use a cash register and clean tables. They also receive food handler certifications to prepare them for working in the food industry after graduation.
The second component of the program is centered around the LIFE skills acronym – life, intellectual, food service and experiential skills. These programs include anger management, table etiquette and GED tutoring.
Trieschmann explains that they focus on teaching students about life outside Curt’s by taking up to two trips per month to places like the National Museum of Mexican Art, Bahá’í Temple or roller rinks.
Trieschmann says her number one goal for Curt’s Cafe is to keep the students they serve from incarceration. “That was it,” she says. “If I could do that, I’d be like, ‘Oh, today is good.’”
Curt’s Cafe partners with the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, a nonprofit that provides legal aid for youth and their families in Evanston and refers many clients to Curt’s both during and after the conclusion of their cases.
According to Patrick Keenan-Devlin, executive director and staff attorney for the Moran Center, “Curt’s helps people find jobs, and we know how important jobs are in reducing recidivism.”
Recidivism is the tendency of a convicted person to relapse into criminal behavior and reoffend. According to a study by the think tank Manhattan Institute, finding employment soon after getting out of prison reduces the likelihood of recidivism from non-violent offenders by 20 percent.
But after being released from incarceration, many young adults have a difficult time securing employment and thriving outside the flawed criminal justice system. Some companies have policies against hiring people with criminal records.
“The criminal justice system is an unfair and discriminatory system. It’s supposed to be rehabilitative. Yet we all know the juvenile delinquency system is far from rehabilitative,” Keenan-Devlin says. “It is really hard work for men, women and children exiting the criminal justice system to get a second chance and rebuild their lives. We shackle them with records that prevent them from getting jobs, loans, mortgages, housing. Yet we judge individuals with such a shackle when they recidivate. It’s true nationally, but certainly locally as well.”
A 2012 study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Association found that 86 percent of youth in Chicago were rearrested within three years of release. Curt’s Cafe program graduates only have a 3 percent recidivism rate, and 82 percent of students are either getting jobs or staying in school. According to Trieschmann, out of that 3 percent, they now only have one graduate who hasn’t yet succeeded. “And he will,” she says.
Nino Nenab Giwargis, a 21-year-old recent graduate, participated in the Curt’s Cafe program for over four months. As a young adult with three felonies, he was worried about finding a job after exiting the criminal justice system. After graduating from the program, he returned for job search assistance. The staff spoke with the Youth Job Center in Evanston, and the YJC agreed to pay Giwargis to continue working at Curt’s.
“Everything’s in our interest, basically,” Giwargis says. “Some people, they find them better jobs. They find a mechanic shop, warehouse, something they would like. You know it’s not like ‘Oh we found you a job,’ it’s ‘What are you interested in?’”
Giwargis doesn’t mind staying at Curt’s, where he’s made a home. Before he returned to his job, he spent three days visiting his friends at the restaurant, occasionally helping out for fun.
In 2015, a new location opened on Dempster Street that exclusively works with young women, many of whom are teen mothers. Conversations from a sewing club, a mom and her young daughter, and friends meeting for lunch drown out the instrumental background music. Four women on shift wash dishes, distribute coffee and serve and prepare sandwiches and salads. The vibrant restaurant’s yellow walls are covered in the student trainees’ artwork.
According to Karen Smith, director of operations for Curt’s Cafe, for an hour each week students have the opportunity to participate in programs that volunteers and community members lead on art therapy, financial literacy, computer literacy and meditation.
For students like Giwargis, these programs are a valuable part of their experience at Curt’s. “Friday is my favorite. We got [a meditation program] because I really will get stressed out. And you know, majority of us, we are delinquents. So we have a temper fast,” Giwargis says. “But this guy comes in, he calms us down. We want to sit down, chill, relax, clear your mind. Boom, we go back to work. And we killing it at work.”
Brethney Neal, a 19-year-old student who joined Curt’s three months ago, graduated early from Evanston Township High School and “had nothing to do. And you know, if you have nothing to do, something bad’s probably gonna happen.”
Neal believes that, along with learning people skills and how to take care of herself mentally, physically and financially, her time at Curt’s has helped her become more assertive.
“I used to be one of those kids who were like ‘Yes, mom and dad. I’ll do what you tell me to do. I’ll just not do what makes me happy,” she says. “Now since I’ve been here I learned how to financially take care of myself more so I can pay my own things. And if my parents don’t agree with it, then I can just be like, ‘I know how to take care of myself.’”
To provide continued support to prevent recidivism, Curt’s has established a spreadsheet containing the information of over 200 graduates, a Facebook group, LinkedIn student profiles and a trauma-informed social service provider that keeps in touch with workers after graduation. And students are always welcome back to the restaurants for free meals.
Trieschmann also stays in touch by visiting the workplaces of graduates. “We’re a family now. We connect. They’re like my kids,” she says.
“By taking kids that everyone else has given up on and giving them another chance, that to me is just the best thing about Curt’s,” says Curt’s Cafe volunteer coordinator Libby Lewis. “Kids that everybody else has said ‘not worth it,’ and maybe they even feel that way about themselves. But just stepping back from all of that and helping them just basically wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start.”
Although Curt’s gives students a fresh start, this program is only the first step in breaking the cycle of recidivism, violence and abuse. However, Trieschmann believes that with a group of mentors and the option to revisit Curt’s for help, the process is made significantly easier.
“When you really have nowhere else to go, you come here,” Neal says. “Curt’s gives you a home and a purpose and a way to pick yourself back up and get moving again.”