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This story originally appeared in Civil Eats and is reprinted here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Velvety carpet lines the entrance to Old Skool Café, and as guests arrive they are greeted by a hallway full of photographs and memories. There is a sense that people have not only been here—but that life has been lived here. Located right next to the Bayview Opera House in the southeast corner San Francisco, the jazz-themed supper club is three levels high including the bar, an open red leather seating area, and a balcony for lounging and performances. It feels both roomy and intimate, and warmth suffuses the space.
But Old Skool is much more than a restaurant; it’s a faith-based, violence-prevention program that provides job training, employment, and a second chance at life to at-risk, formerly incarcerated, and foster care youth.
Desiree*, an Old Skool alum who joined the program at age 15 in 2008, returned in 2017 as a staff member to mentor others like her. Since then, she has continued to learn about the food business and worked her way up to the role of assistant general manager in training.
“Old Skool was created to give at-risk youth the family that a lot of them don’t have. [Some] don’t even know what a family is—other than the people on the streets,” says Desiree.
Despite the ever-changing staff, nothing about Old Skool is haphazardly thrown together. The menu and the foods are carefully chosen, and the young participants have the option to add their own recipes—often foods they saw cooked in their homes as children—as specials for two months at a time. “If it hits and it’s popular, then we add it to the regular menu. If it doesn’t, then we continue to work on the recipe and try again,” says Desiree. One example, Daniel’s Gumbo—which was created by a program alum—tasted like the real thing.
Twenty years ago, Teresa Goines, a juvenile corrections officer at the time, noticed a gap in the reentry system for California youth. After serving their sentences at juvenile hall, Goines says that most of the youth had so few options on the outside that they would ask to come back. In juvenile detention, at least their basic needs were met.
“Many of them were getting their high school diplomas and receiving counseling. We had work crews, structure, and support,” says Goines. But when they left, they often faced a choice between a violent environment or homelessness and food insecurity. “We [were] setting them up to fail,” she adds.
(Photo courtesy Old Skool Café)
After two years of intentional research, Goines’ founded Old Skool Café, and she says she built every inch of it keeping in mind the needs of the young people she’d worked with. “Jobs, a sense of family and community, and purpose. They were finding it in the streets, but it was [costing them] their lives. I wanted Old Skool to be competitive with the streets and offer what every human being needs in a life-giving way.”
Why focus on a restaurant? A significant portion of San Francisco’s economy is generated by tourism, and its food and hospitality scene has become an integral part of that economy. Eighteen years ago, when Goines began researching viable industries, she noted 25 percent of the jobs in the area were generated by the hospitality industry. The industry has been on a roller coaster since then—with the tech boom and the COVID-19 shutdown—but Old Skool has so far survived intact.
In 2020, it pivoted to online ordering and outdoor dining. But even when the café had to close down, the youth were still receiving training online; they adapted and learned. Though San Francisco Travel’s 2022 report details a significant increase in travel and spending in the city since the downturn turn of 2020, it’s clear that there is still much to repair.
Goines felt a restaurant would offer an opportunity to learn about growth in a professional environment. Many leaders in the industry start out as dishwashers and work their way up to be restaurant managers or owners. She appreciated the lessons the structure could offer youth in a safe environment.
“I knew that young people didn’t like school, but food is kinesthetic,” said Goines. The youth, some as young as 13, can train for every position in the industry at Old Skool. Over the course of two years, they can move throughout the restaurant, serving roles as line cooks, servers, hosts, managers, and even performers.
Take Royel, a young food lover currently in the program who dreams of one day opening her own restaurant, for example. She is working in the back of the house, gaining experience working with professional chefs. While beefing up their resumes in a flexible environment, Goines says, the participants can build on their people skills and see instant rewards for their authentic personalities.
The youth at Old Skool also get life-skills training. They learn the basics of financial stability, such as how to open bank accounts, use credit cards, and manage debt. They receive help with resumes, cover letters, and interview training. Resident Chef Kevin Tucker also brings in guest chefs from around the area to share their expertise, as well as additional BIPOC chefs who visit to talk about their experience running thriving businesses.
For Desiree, recent presentation opportunities have helped her develop public speaking skills. “When I first started [at Old Skool], I couldn’t get a word out,” she said, “I’m super shy, so I was like, ‘This is never gonna happen. This is not me.’ But we believe in pushing everyone out of their comfort zone to open up opportunities for them.”
A Community Touchstone
Old Skool is seen by many as a shining example of what it means to holistically build a program around a community. Hydra Mendoza is a long-time supporter and neighbor. She worked in city government for 13 years, mainly in the Mayor’s offices, and served as a member to the San Francisco Board of Education. Mendoza met Goines during an event that included walking around the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood and getting to know the local businesses, organizations, and groups. What sets Old Skool apart? Mendoza says it’s that they “welcome everyone.” During recent visits, she says she’s seen the restaurant host everyone from former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to groups of local public school teachers.