Social purpose business of the Catholic Multicultural Center helps lift individuals out of poverty
By Laura Green
“Used to be I couldn’t boil water, but now I’m a lot better at cooking. Plus I’m the best dishwasher in the United States,” said Larry with a laugh, explaining what he likes about his job. Larry is a member of the Culinary Creations Catering crew, a social enterprise of the Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC). Before becoming involved with Culinary Creations Catering, Larry was homeless and struggling to find a job where he could make a living. Over three years ago he enrolled in the foodservice training program at the CMC to learn food preparation techniques, safe food handling, and work towards gaining a nationally recognized food safety certification. After graduating from the foodservice training, he applied for and was hired part-time for a newly developed catering social enterprise of the CMC, a job that turned out to be life-changing. Now, three years later, Larry is off the streets and living in his own apartment thanks to the opportunity to work for Culinary Creations Catering. The opportunity for meaningful employment is at the core of the mission of Culinary Creations Catering.
“The idea for this program is to help people pull themselves out of poverty by giving them the training they need and the opportunity to work that they otherwise wouldn’t get,” explained CMC Director Andy Russell, who helped develop the program. The social enterprise aims to reach people who aren’t given the chance at steady employment due to issues such as past addictions, homelessness, health issues that interfere with work, or simply never having had the chance to learn life skills that many of us take for granted, such as how to communicate effectively or how to behave professionally on the job.
“The folks we bring on, we’re teaching them and giving them an opportunity where no one else would,” said Catering Manager Lynn Heiman. Heiman not only oversees the day-to-day operations of the catering business, but also serves as a mentor to employees to assist in their professional growth throughout their time at the social enterprise. Employees are welcome to work at the social enterprise as long as they wish, but the ultimate goal is for them to develop the skills, confidence, and work history they need to move on to an even better job outside the social enterprise.
Marilyn is one such Culinary Creations catering employee using her experience at the social enterprise to find better work opportunities. “Before enrolling in the foodservice training [at the CMC], I was unemployed and looking for a job in food service. But I kept getting turned away because they were wanting people with previous experience.” Marilyn was participating in the Foundations employment skills program at the Urban League of Greater Madison, which referred her to the foodservice training at the CMC. Like Larry, Marilyn applied for a job at the catering social enterprise after completing the training. Now she has happily been working at the business for eight months. She recently took on another part time job with Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), a job she obtained thanks to her experience and job reference from the social enterprise. Now, she is on track to full-time employment next year with MMSD, though in the meantime she continues to enjoy working part-time at the catering business.
A position at Culinary Creations Catering is not merely a job, according to CMC staff. Employees get on-the-job training and support to help develop their career and life goals. On-the-job communication skills are taught to employees, which they practice in interacting with catering customers. The employees have a say in management of the program, from what menu items to offer to helping develop marketing materials to being able to introduce new recipes. Employees can work up towards taking on leadership roles such as being the lead coordinator for a catering job. CMC staff are working on developing even more leadership and professional development opportunities for catering staff to partake in, such as workshops and trainings on computer skills, communication, and customer service. “I learn more from this job [than I ever did from other jobs],” said Larry.
Culinary Creations Catering got its start at a very grassroots level nearly four years ago. It was conceived as an idea to help give people in the foodservice training program at the CMC a direct link to employment, after staff saw that even with the training, lack of a steady work history was still a major barrier for some in obtaining employment. Culinary Creations started with no staff, no budget, and no space of its own, operating out of the CMC kitchen. With the CMC being a Catholic organization, the social enterprise found its niche in catering funeral luncheons at Catholic churches. In the beginning it was only able to employ a small number of workers and offer them meager hours. Still, CMC staff put a lot of time and effort into getting the program off the ground, one step at a time. Then, things finally started to come together.
Multi-year grants from the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development allowed the CMC to commission a feasibility study and create a business plan to set goals for the expansion of the social enterprise. This grant allowed the CMC to hire Heiman as Catering Manager, finally giving the social enterprise the much-needed time and attention it required. Heiman immediately began making improvements to grow the social enterprise: she built a stronger foodservice training program to cultivate future employees, created the first official catering menus, and improved customer service.
While the social enterprise continued to expand within its niche of catering at Catholic churches, Heiman led the program into new territory, catering community events, business luncheons, and most significantly, school lunches. Starting this academic year, Culinary Creations Catering is the school lunch provider at Our Lady Queen of Peace K4-8 school. “Catering jobs come and go,” explained Heiman, “but the lunch program gives our employees regular work week hours, which is huge. If you want to make a living, you need stable hours.”
Now, the social enterprise offers stable employment for six employees and counting. Five days a week the Culinary Creations crew prepares lunch for the school each morning, while spending the reminder of their time the rest of the week working on catering jobs. Marilyn appreciates the steady work of preparing school lunches and values getting to use her creativity to keep the offerings at the school salad bar exciting. “I don’t want the same old thing [for people to eat] every day,” she said. For Marilyn and Larry, the school lunch aspect of their job is something they both enjoy because they love seeing the kids each day and watching how much fun they have at lunch time. The social enterprise plans to continue to serve at schools. “Now that we are catering one school lunch program, we are hoping that other area schools will learn about us and give us the opportunity to cater for them,” said Heiman.
Another major achievement for the social enterprise came in March of this year, when Culinary Creations Catering obtained its own commercial van thanks to a grant from the Goodman Foundation. Running a catering business without a standard way to transport food had been quite the challenge for the developing social enterprise. Previously, Heiman and other CMC staff used their own vehicles to transport food to catering jobs, cramming food in multiple vehicles to deliver orders and dealing with food tipping over since it wasn’t able to be properly secured. With the van, Heiman says they now have all the room they need. Plus the van, which sports the CMC logo and Culinary Creations Catering name, is fully equipped with features such as built-in shelves to get the food to a job in once piece.
Culinary Creations Catering has come a long way in its four-year journey to become an established social-purpose business. Even after all these recent advancements, Culinary Creations is still striving to expand in order to better serve its staff members and individuals in the community facing barriers to employment. Another staff member, Joseph, was among the first of the CMC foodservice training graduates to be hired for Culinary Creations Catering and has now been working at the program almost four years. While most catering staff will eventually move onto bigger and better jobs, Joseph chose to stay with the social enterprise. Now, he has a permanent position as Associate Caterer, working alongside Heiman to oversee the social enterprise and the catering. “The Center was willing to give me a chance,” said Joseph. “It gave me the opportunity here that I didn’t have elsewhere.” For Joseph and the other staff of Culinary Creations Catering, it’s amazing what one chance can do.