Words By Nicole Schnitzler / Illustration by Barry Blitt
Susan Trieschmann gives at-risk youth the opportunity to work at Curtâ€™s CafĂ©.
It was her work at Restorative Justice Evanston that led Susan Trieschmann to launch Curtâ€™s CafĂ©, a restaurant in downtown Evanston dedicated to getting at-risk youth off the streets and into jobs. After years of speaking with previously or soon to be incarcerated kids about what they needed most to build a future for themselves, she realized the answer was largely unanimous: a job. With a long running career in the food service industry already established, from overseeing catering operations at the Pump Room, to co-founding Food for Thought Enterprise, Trieschmann knew she had the expertise required to train others in the restaurant world.
In May 2012 she opened Curtâ€™s CafĂ©, where a rotating group of students learns the ins and outs of food service, while also gaining valuable life skillsâ€”from managing anger to opening bank accounts. The program has graduated more than 60 individuals ages 15 to 24, and Trieschmann only intends for that number to grow with this Marchâ€™s addition of Curtâ€™s CafĂ© South (1813 Dempster Street in Evanston), a sister location focused on helping at-risk young women and teen mothers. Here, we learn more about Trieschmann, her students, and the lessons gained from each.
What have you learned from your students? Theyâ€™ve taught me how to get up every morning, even when things are really, really tough, and how to move forward. I always thought I was really good at that, but seeing the struggles they go through, Iâ€™ve learned that I can work through more than I probably thought I could. And humility, for sure. I learn from them every single day.
What was the last rewarding moment you experienced?
Just last week we were doing a fundraiser gig. One of the graduate students and one existing student were serving the party. I ran in late and expected to throw off my coat to help and really hustle, and I saw these two kids just going above and beyond what the job even required. They were doing things I didnâ€™t even know we had been able to teach them, and serving tables in the most respectful way. I couldnâ€™t have been more proud. I went to the counter and got a glass of iced tea and thought, â€śIâ€™ve got nothing to do here.â€ť They had it.
How do you stay involved in your studentsâ€™ lives post-graduation? Thus far we are in touch with every single student, all of the time. Many of them have their own apartments, and most of them have jobs and have filled out their first tax return. They all come in and have lunch and share what theyâ€™re up to. When youâ€™re at Curtâ€™s, youâ€™re part of our family. If I didnâ€™t keep in touch with them, itâ€™d be as if I didnâ€™t keep in touch with my own son or daughter.
What is it about food that works so well in this formula? I believe in breaking bread together. I think if you sit and dine with someone and listen to their story, you build a bond that people donâ€™t always realize. When the kids take a break in the morning, sometimes Iâ€™ll just grab a cup of coffee and sit with them. The act of sitting at a table with someone is super powerful. Also, with food, youâ€™re always creating. Food service is one of the hardest industries you can be in, and if you can survive that, you can probably do darn near anything.
Curtâ€™s CafĂ© is located at 2922 Central Street in Evanston, 847-868-8385, curtscafe.org.