The lunch rush is over but there is one more sandwich to make. Yolanda Anton, a part-time employee at the YWCA Tucson, is carefully assembling the last to-go order, a sandwich made with avocado, fresh local chèvre, tomato, and house-made sriracha mayo. Anton smiles, “You have to come in with a good attitude and make your sandwich with love. It will taste better.”
Around her the women are busy. One is brewing tea, another prepping a fruit tray; one is reviewing the upcoming catering order. Laughter fills the kitchen as they share stories. It’s hard to tell that these women have only worked together for a few months.
Founded in 1917, for almost 100 years the YWCA Tucson has strived to improve the lives of females in our community and provide them a “place to convene and network, think and plan and act together.” The programs it offers include a four-day employability skills workshop, GED classes, and leadership development. It even has a closet full of professional clothing available free to those preparing for a first interview or job. All of these cumulate in one goal: to empower women. Recently they added another tool toward empowerment, a café.
In February, the YWCA Tucson celebrated the grand opening of a café in its building on Bonita Avenue. Open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the café dishes up salads and sandwiches, and also provides off-site catering. But the Café at the YW offers more than a quick stop for a beloved cup of Joe—it offers job training for at-risk females. In an industry when 60 percent of new start-ups fail, the café’s goal is deeper than profit; it’s about community.
The recession in 2008 hit many nonprofits hard. Government grant money and corporate support dried up, forcing many organizations to take a deeper look at diversifying their income. For some, social enterprise proved the solution.
Social enterprise is simply a business that provides income for a nonprofit organization—think Girl Scout cookies. Not only do the cookies help troops raise money, by selling cookies the girls are sharpening their entrepreneurial spirit and learning persistence and the value of hard work. Selling cookies reinforces the organization’s mission to build “girls of courage, confidence, and character.”
Kelly Fryer, the executive director at the YWCA, is a former Girl Scout—and top cookie seller—herself. When she joined the organization in 2012 the board was ready to look deeper at its financial stability matrix, and Fryer championed social enterprise as a way to strengthen both the organization’s bottom line and its programs.
More than 25,000 people come through the YWCA building every year, both to participate in YWCA programs and for community events. Fryer sat in the lobby one day watching tray after tray of food being brought in for these meetings and thought, “Well, that looks like a business opportunity.” They had a kitchen; they had individuals who wanted to learn job skills; and they had people who needed meals. The only thing Fryer needed was someone as passionate as she was to spearhead the project.
Liane Hernandez had experience in the culinary world. She started out as a dishwasher at Bentley’s House of Coffee & Tea, worked as a banquet chef at Lowes Ventana Canyon, and was working as sous chef at Proper before she came to the YW. Through all of her jobs, she’s carried around a question: “How do you do more than just make lunch?” For Hernandez, the mission wasn’t just the meal; it extended to the person cooking the meal.
“I was meeting Debbie Rich, the CEO of the Girl Scouts, at Proper for a glass of wine and Liane comes darting across the restaurant to me. Plops herself down, and says, ‘I have to tell you what I have been dreaming about,’” Fryer says. While the two had met many times before, this was the first time that they had the chance to share visions. The timing could not have been more perfect. Within eight weeks of this brief encounter, Hernandez was on Fryer’s staff and the Café at YW was born.
The next six months were a whirlwind. Finding the food cart itself was the easy part—the difficult part was getting it to Tucson and getting it licensed. Health Department applications, grease receptors, and water waste management started to occupy Hernandez’s time. There were hours spent researching other YWCA’s and their successes and pitfalls with similar enterprises. And then there was the menu.
“I never thought I would be back here serving individual plates and serving people food. It is amazing what you can discover about yourself.”
The kitchen at the YWCA has no ovens or stoves, which meant that all the food items they could serve would have to be cold. Both Hernandez and Fryer were committed to local, fresh products from the get-go. The Café sources its coffee from Bisbee Coffee Company, the tea from Maya Tea Company, organic produce from McClendon’s Select, and bread from Small Planet Bakery. By combining local products, focusing on cold preparations and quality ingredients, the Café at YW is working to provide value-priced wholesome dining—a sandwich with side costs as little as $4.50.
“We have been getting a lot of great support. This feels like such an organic process,” Hernandez says. The vision for the Café doesn’t end with coffee and sandwiches. Later this fall, the YWCA hopes to add a job training program to the Café. Focusing on young woman between 18 and 24 years old that are aging out of the foster system, the café hopes to be a stepping stone for them to real-world employment. Hernandez and her team hope to employ 10 interns for 20 hours a week. Combining the internship with Y-Works Skills for Successful Employment workshops and partnering with outside programs such as the Caridad Community Kitchen at the Community Food Bank, Fryer and Hernandez hope to empower participating women with a comprehensive career development package.
The Café has two part-time staff members, one full-time, and a volunteer, Flo Meador, who has been volunteering with the YWCA for more than four years and has seen the transformation the café has provided. “The first few years I was here the [lobby] echoed” Meador said. Now the lobby is full of laughter and conversation. Among other volunteer tasks, Meador helps with kitchen prep, cutting fruit, preparing trays, and whatever else is needed. She is excited at the potential job-training program. “We are looking into me going through the Caridad Community Kitchen program,” she says. “I studied to be a Home Ec teacher and drugs took me away from there. It is time I got it back.”
Working alongside Meador, is Yolanda Anton. In 2011, Anton was laid off from a job where she prepared school lunches for a private middle school. “I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me,” she says. “I didn’t know where to go.” With three kids to feed, she turned to ResCare, a temporary staffing agency. They placed her as a front desk receptionist at the YWCA, which quickly brought her on as part-time staff. “I never thought I would be back here serving individual plates and serving people food,” she says. “It is amazing what you can discover about yourself.”
“I have learned so much about myself through working in kitchens and restaurants,” Hernandez says. “The kitchen is full of learning opportunities,” she says—and it’s precisely those opportunities the YW hopes to provide for a group of interns. “There is a certain level of forgiveness that we can afford to have here. When you are doing three meals a day [for] 350 people there is a certain level of ‘Let’s go.’ Even if I want to teach you and take you along in this journey, you need to pick it up [on your own].”
In the kitchen at the YW, “We have an opportunity to get people up to speed and teach them the questions to ask and have them think about the questions to ask. Part of what we do, part of our mission is to empower women, so I think that having the ability to ask questions and to wonder is really important here.”
In order to launch their job training program, the Café needs enough business to support 10 paid interns. With that in mind, Hernandez is focused on developing the catering program, which offers sandwiches and salads for large in-house events and small gatherings in the community. They also offer boxed lunches, which have proved popular with businesses nearby.
For Hernandez, food creates community. Fryer agrees. “The YWCA building was clearly built as a community center. It is a place where people can hang out, share food, and share stories,” says Fryer. “The Café at the YWCA is fulfilling that original vision.”
Anton agrees that the Café will be fulfilling the YWCA’s mission: “If [interns] come in with a lack of confidence and we are able to build them back up, by showing them, ‘I can do this, look at this piece of art I just built.’ If they can see people eating what they made and enjoying it, this will help the women to empower themselves and help them join the workforce and be a part of everything else.” ✜
Café at the YW. 525 N. Bonita Ave. 520.884.7810.
Alicynn Fink is a recent graduate from the University of Gastronomic Sciences and a food geek who devotes most of her time to learning about food systems.