Cafe Shifts Gears, But Keeps Workers On Road To Recovery

May 8, 2020

Stay-home orders amid the coronavirus outbreak have forced lots of restaurants to redesign their business models.  The challenge was multiplied for a Charlotte restaurant that doubles as a training program for people in recovery from substance abuse.  

David Crandall
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Community Matters Cafe is a one-year-old restaurant and coffee shop in Charlotte's Third Ward, north of the Carolina Panthers' stadium. It's run by Charlotte Rescue Mission and staffed by adults who have been through the mission's recovery programs. For those workers, the coronavirus posed a threat not only to their jobs, but also to the program that lets them bone up on life skills as they transition back to the workforce.

“Everybody was worried that we were gonna have to shut the program down for a while,” said student David Crandall. “I know privately I was worried about that. But they got very creative and found ways to keep the focus on the program, keep the program going and keep us busy and occupied. And also be able to help the community.” 

Pivot To Catering  

The restaurant's professional staff converted the restaurant into a community catering kitchen for frontline workers and families in need. The cafe side of the house still does takeout coffee and snacks every morning until noon. But instead of serving sit-down breakfast and lunch on site, most of the staff now prepares up to 2,000 meals a week for social service programs around the Charlotte area, said General Manager Ed Price. 

Ashley Tuttle and Ed Price are professional managers at Community Matters Cafe.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

"We had to change some equipment around so that we were better able to mass produce food rather than retail produce, which has got a different feel,” Price said.

Price and his staff came up with Community Matters' "Plan B" for COVID-19. He said the challenge wasn't just how to keep the restaurant going, but also how to provide continuity to his students. 

“It's allowed us to take 26 men and women who really would not have had anything to do in their continued recovery, and give them the ability to actually press in a little bit deeper in their recovery,” Price said.  

Price said it's allowed him to get to know people better and focus more on the people side of the business.  And as Crandall said, they're serving the community, too. Those 2,000 meals a week are going to programs such as the Charlotte Men's Shelter, the Urban Ministry Center, The Relatives and the Union County Shelter. Donations paid for the food, itself.

“And it allows our students who are in our program the opportunity to continue in food service production without a true customer walking through the door like we've had traditionally,” Price said.

Community Matters Cafe
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Cafe And Mother’s Day Specials 

But the cafe is not completely out of the restaurant business. Every week, they prepare takeout specials for the cafe, such as quiche.  And this weekend, they sold take-away meals for Mother's Day: chicken roulade stuffed with tomato, basil, and Swiss cheese with sides of roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts. And ready-to-bake cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting. 

“We want to continue to still reach our community and a lot of the people that have been our great patrons since we've opened this past year. And we wanted to be able to show our students that even in these adverse times that we can still find a way to reach different people,” said Ashley Tuttle, Community Matters’ food and beverage director. 

Seventy-five customers bought the meals and picked them up Friday morning. 

The ability to stay focused on recovery has been important for Crandall, who graduates in a month. 

“I was just having a ball here while we were open full swing," Crandall said. "And you know it kind of dampened a little bit when this virus incident came up. But we've made the most of it. We've found ways to still keep it fun and encouraging and moving forward, and that's been really helpful.”

Community Matters will continue cooking for homeless and lunch programs at least through the end of May. After that, they hope to get back to their old business of table service. 

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