Nonprofit gets into restaurant business to boost culinary training

 In News Article

Detroit employment nonprofit Operation Able is branching out into the restaurant game.

The affiliate of Westland-based Spectrum Human Services helps residents of Detroit and nearby cities train for, find and transition to jobs. It serves youth, older clients and those returning from prison — especially through its growing culinary program, which is aiming to match pace with the booming restaurant industry that’s experiencing a skilled-labor shortage.

It’s also planning to open a social-enterprise restaurant in its Woodward Avenue building in Midtown on Oct. 13.

“About three years ago, we decided that with all the growth in the restaurant industry, that would a good place to do some training,” said Mary McDougall, executive director of the 32-year-old organization. “The big thing is you want is to be sure you’re training people for the jobs that are prevalent.”

Using training materials from the National Restaurant Association and a commercial kitchen in its building, Operation Able offers a 12-week training session for entry-level food industry jobs. Its next cohort starts in late October.

Graduates have gone on to work for Henry Ford Health System, Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles in Detroit, Maggiano’s in Troy and River Bistro in Detroit, among others.

The culinary program costs $4,400 per student, which most don’t pay themselves, McDougall said. Often students qualify for money through U.S. Department of Labor training funds doled out to career centers including through Detroit’s Detroit at Work program.

Culinary is Operation Able’s only occupational training program, but it aims to launch call center customer service training in November.

The Detroit nonprofit takes on around 125 new clients per year for various job placement, transition and other services. They stay with Operation Able around three to five years. Another 25 go through culinary training per year, but the nonprofit hopes to boost that figure to 50-75 in 2019. Currently around a third are citizens returning from prison.

The nonprofit’s budget is around $600,000 per year. It expects the culinary portion of its budget to grow from around a third to 40 percent-45 percent as it adds students and introduces daytime culinary classes in January — right now they take place in the evening.

But recently Operation Able’s team has thought more about hands-on training. Restaurant jobs are high-pressure and budding culinary workers need more than classroom skills, McDougall said. So after several holiday pop-ups, Operation Able is working to open its own restaurant tentatively called Able’s Tables. Its soft debut is scheduled for Oct. 13.

It will open Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. to start. The operation shares a kitchen and restaurant space in its building at 4750 Woodward Ave. with Ms. Ruth’s Catering. The building is also home to the Hannan Center, a community organization for seniors.

McDougall wants to serve healthy dishes and drinks including soup, salad and smoothies at a “reasonable cost,” she said. She aims to target elderly residents and students in a neighborhood where higher-end restaurants are becoming more widespread.

She estimates chef-special entrées will cost around $10, sandwiches $5-$7 and soup around $5.

The restaurant will offer culinary students optional six-eight week internships for hands-on experience in a working kitchen and minimum-wage pay. It’ll start with around six interns and three staff.

Responding to need

Nearly 2 million new restaurant jobs are expected to be created by 2025 as the industry expands, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

“We know restaurants are in real need of people, so that’s a wonderful thing, because people can get jobs,” McDougall said.

The Michigan and Detroit restaurant associations say skilled-worker shortages are among industry employers‘ chief concerns: 62 percent of Michigan association survey respondents in the first quarter of 2018 said filling jobs was their No. 1 challenge. It’s a problem multiple industries have faced for years.

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