Founder: Curt’s Café
“I thought, I can take these three boys’ stories and my love for food service, and maybe I can help.”
She has worked in Food Service since the age of 13. At one time, she was Director of Catering at Chicago’s Pump Room before becoming an original owner and partner of Food For Thought Enterprise, www.fftchicago.com, a food service industry specializing in upscale catering and café food service management.
She is also an original member of Restorative Justice Evanston (RJE), www.restorativejusticeevanston.com, a non-profit organization that works with youth and community on peaceful dialogue around harm caused, celebrations and conflicts. She has been married to Tom Trieschmann for 28 years and has two children, Trevor and Anna. (Source: Curt’s Café website http://curtscafe.org/ .)
“Curt’s Café, which opened in May 2012, is designed as a workforce development program” she says. “We work with young adults, 15 to 24 years old. People think we’re a little crazy, but we target young adults that are coming out of the prison system. That’s our first go-to kid. If they’ve had time in prison, which would mean they probably have trouble getting a job in our system, that’s our target group. We also get kids with a lot of judicial contact.
“I’m the founder. Curt’s was my concept. My husband and I mortgaged our house to open it.”
I wish I had a reason, a real reason for doing this. It’s like, if you start a cancer movement, it’s because you have cancer or your mother died from cancer. If you did something with prison reform, it’s because one of your nephews went into prison. I don’t have those stories. I didn’t have a tragedy, I didn’t have anyone that I knew who was really marginalized because of the system. I don’t have that in my background. I’m a restaurant girl. I’ve had a great life.
Somehow you got here from there, though.
I have a 50-page business plan. It was always to target what our society calls “throwaway kids.” Kids that may not be able to move past the stage of delinquency, the stage of cycling in and out of the prison system, or at the very least, the judicial system. 90% of our kids are homeless. Some have graduated high school; a lot have not. When we put them in prison, we stop the learning process entirely. We don’t even allow them to make any choices.
If you put someone in at 14 and you say, we are going to tell you what to eat, what to wear, how to think, and then send them out at 17 or 18, they have to relearn the thinking process. They have to decide, do I want to wear the red shirt or the green shirt? They just simply haven’t had to use that muscle in a while. It takes a long time, so a lot of our first month is about thinking on your own, being allowed to make your own choices, being allowed to fail and not have it look like a failure or feel like a failure.
The café is designed to only serve 25 to 30 students a year, which does not make us very sexy in a funding pool. But it’s all about the kids, and it’s all about their success, so that’s just what we do. We’re not perfect, God knows. We mess up a lot. But of all the kids who’ve been through our program so far, we only have one back in prison. So we’re trying to hold to that.
If a 31st kid came to you, what would you do?
I would take him. But only if we had the space, because if I get too many kids in there, we can’t do our work, we really can’t. I have a huge waiting list, but then if I see a kid that’s really on the ledge, we will bring him in.
Do you remember when the idea for Curt’s popped into your head?
I do, I do actually remember it. I’ll do a quick history. I’d opened my own business with my sister and brother-in-law, Nancy Sharp and Curt Sharp. [Food For Thought Catering. LINK]. I was 25. We grew it from a $300 [company] to a multi-million dollar company. When Curt was 53, he got lung cancer and died within a year.
I watched him process his death knowing that it was definitely a very quick death. I watched the decisions he made and his regrets, which were few. He had lived a great life. But I didn’t want to be 53 and not have really tried everything that I thought I might want to try, though I didn’t know what that was. So I went to college for the first time at 48.
I went to community college for two years and then DePaul for two years. When I was at DePaul, I was studying business and theology and dance, (I can’t dance; I have no rhythm). I studied piano. All the stupid stuff that I had kind of wanted to learn. And then when I was at DePaul, I signed up for a class accidentally. I hit the wrong button and didn’t know how to undo it without calling whatever, my counselor, so I just decided to take the class. And anyway, I thought it was an easy A. I was really that kind of student. It ended up being Restorative Justice, Peacemaking, Mediation.
A computer error led to this?
Or made it possible?
Made it possible. I’m a universe-listener, you know? I’m learning more and more to be in the space and listen to what I’m called to do. I sat in ten of the classes, with Professors Liz and Peter, and we would write in a journal every night and hand it in. I’d write, “I love you guys, but this is so dumb, this is so silly, I don’t believe in it, but don’t flunk me.”
What was silly about it?
Well, we sat in a circle, we passed a talking piece. And I’ve done all that before, but not in DePaul at two, three thousand dollars a class. It was very lah-dee-dah; it was very group hug; it was share from your heart and speak from your soul…or, listen with your heart, speak from your soul.
So I sat there. They knew I was a hater, so my final exam was to go to the Audi Home. It’s got a new name now, but it’s where we incarcerate our children. I sat in a circle with Father Kelly and Father Denny and a group of boys once a week, doing drumming circles, drumming and dialog.
I thought that was kinda silly, too, but I’ve done women drumming circles, so none of it was new to me. But sitting in a circle with eighteen felons was different, all teenage boys, listening to them share from their soul, just the deepest part of their soul, was amazing. They live in an unsafe space, so to share at that depth, to share what they’re afraid of, to share what they hoped for, was very dangerous for them. And they did it, and they did it for two hours. And I walked out of there changed and thinking, this is intense; this is powerful.
What did you feel changed in you?
My heart. I’ve always had a pretty big heart; I’m a bit of a knucklehead like that, but I don’t know, my soul was lifted or something. I don’t know, I’m not that deep of a person. I remember calling my little sister who’s a social worker and saying, “I can’t believe you’re lucky enough to do this work and hear people’s stories and sit with their sorrow and their happiness. This is beautiful work.”
Why do you think that was so powerful for you?
I wish I knew. I don’t know. It’s not in your head. It’s nowhere up here. It’s in your heart. And even to describe a circle now… I sat in a circle on Wednesday with like 30, 40, 50 people, and we had a talking piece and we shared like what intent we brought to the circle, and I’m looking around going, this is silly. But then I walk away going, I’m nourished, I’m refreshed, I’m renewed. Thank you, universe. It’s beautiful.
How did you get from that class to thinking, I’ll open a café staffed by kids just getting out of jail?
Probably two years of… I wouldn’t even say soul searching. I’m a businesswoman, I love being a businesswoman, and I was looking to open another business, or run a nonprofit. So what happened, we did a circle, once, with three kids from Evanston. They were 14 or 15, and they were going to be sent away on a felony charge for graffiti arting a school and a car. And they did do extensive damage, I’m not minimalizing that, but one of the reasons was, Evanston had just taken away all the graffiti walls [where kids were allowed to paint] and they were angry. Still not a good excuse.
But a felony for art? You know? What’s said in the circle has to stay in the circle, but it was one of the most moving circles I’ve ever been in. There was an African-American family that was affected [by the graffiti] and there were these teenage Latin American kids, and we crossed all sorts of boundaries in the most safe, sacred space. The family was saying, “Why did you do this to us? Because we’re black?” And the kids: “That’s not even it. Your car was white, and it was really big and it was clean, you know?”
Rather than sending them out for a felony for doing graffiti, their punishment, (we call it restitution), was to paint the church of the African-American folks that they had offended, because it was a church with older people and they couldn’t get that done on their own. And then they taught a class on graffiti art to the school that they had violated. So it was a win-win situation. They were able to use their art, and the community was rewarded.
We asked, “What would have stopped you from doing this?” They said, “One, we want our graffiti wall in Evanston back. And two, if we had jobs. We can’t get jobs.”
I thought, I can take these three boys’ stories and my love for food service, and maybe I can help. So I decided I could figure that out. Food service is the third biggest hiring group in the United States. I know food service, I love food service, so I thought, well maybe I could help in that way. I wrote a business plan, and then because I am a businesswoman, and I’m not a fundraiser, and the numbers never worked out so I kept shelving it. And then one day I was literally just moved to action. I don’t know why. I wish I did some days.
This space became available. It was actually the space where we had opened Food For Thought, my first company, with Nan and Curt. And I walked through the space and I’m like, well this is weird because it feels really good. I went home and asked my husband if we could mortgage the house. I had a dream.
How did he respond?
He never questioned my insanity. He had to take a leap of faith to let me take all our money to do this. We’re not rich people, but he trusted me, and he let me do it.
Do you remember your first students?
Sure. There was Chris, Cliff, LaTavia, and Shantel, those were our first four students. Story about Chris. The night before we opened, we had an open house thingy, and I didn’t have it all figured out at that point, so we ended up accidentally leaving, (we; I mean I), ended up leaving the front door open. We went out the back door, and I thought the front door was locked. The next day was Chris’s first day.
He’d had a really hard time finding any work, so he was very excited. I had told him to come in at six in the morning. He wanted to be early, so he came in at two in the morning. He went to the front door and it was unlocked, so he went in. I get a call from the police because I had a security system that was donated. “An African-American man has broken into your restaurant.” I’m like, Oh my God. So I show up there in my pajamas. Chris is a big kid, and he had a black hoodie on. They said, “Do you know him?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And he took his hood off, “It’s me!” So the police ended up driving him home, which was really, really nice. I don’t think they’re allowed to do that.
Was he just being super conscientious?
Super conscientious. That was it. He was super excited. (Laughs) That’s our darling.
Do you have a sense of how Curt’s is perceived in the Evanston community?
Originally: not in our neighborhood, not by our children. There was a little backlash, and quite honestly, I would have done the same thing; I’m not going to lie. I don’t advertise in any literature that we work with ex-felons or anything like that because it’s disrespectful to the students we serve. And it would scare the bejeezus out of people. [What the kids had done] that was then; they move on when they’re with us.
So I never advertised it as such, but someone got wind of it. It was an elementary school group of moms, and they really just didn’t want these kids in their neighborhood. I could sit in judgment, but honestly, I know there was a time when I would’ve thought that, too.
How did you handle that?
The cop that they spoke with knew the work that I do in the restorative world, so he spoke on my behalf to them about how it was going to be handled, how he respected what I said I was going to do, my intent and intention. I said, if it doesn’t work, we’ll just be a coffee shop. I’m not going to jeopardize the neighborhood; I’m not going to do that, because I live in the neighborhood. But I think it’s going to be okay.
Evanston is the most amazing community, and I have to say the people up there are the most amazing people. I know our customer service is jeopardized due to the fact we’re always training. So we’re always compromised, but the customers are patient, and they’re loving and they drink hot chocolate even if they order coffee, and they eat a scone even if they had a ham sandwich on their mind; they’re just wonderful.
So they’ve embraced us now, and they’ve done that because they see the change in the kids. We’re not self-promoting; they see the change they’re making by coming in and being patient with these young people. They’re not “those kids.” They’re our kids.
I’m hell-bent about making people aware of the fact that we hold prejudices that maybe we shouldn’t, and that we judge too quickly. I was one of them, so I know. My whole goal when I wake up in the morning is to help the kids. Whatever they need, I am able to figure out a way to give it to them, most of the time.
Our conversation occurred in a space that was soon to open as Curt’s Café South. It is located near Evanston Township High School. Susan tells me she had been talking to a friend who had been urging her to open a second café. “But I didn’t want to open another café just to open another café.
“We talked and we talked and then something came out of my mouth and it sounded like, ‘We don’t have many girls, and that’s been bothering me. Maybe we could do teen mothers and at-risk girls.’ It just like flew out of my mouth; I have no idea where it came from. It had been in my heart for a while. So when I said that, I thought, Oh damn. That would be perfect. So in this place, we will train at-risk girls and teen mothers, and I think this neighborhood will really embrace that.”
Behind Susan is a painting (photo in sidebar) which I sensed had some meaning to her, so I asked about it.
I just think she’s lovely. I’ve yet to name her. I was in Austin, Texas, for my sister, Nan’s, 60th birthday. We went to a lot of coffee shops and restaurants so I could get ideas for here. I turned around and saw it, and I said, “Oh my gosh Nan, wouldn’t that look cool at the café?” That girl was the spirit of the café: beautiful, gentle, loving mother.
And next thing I knew, Nan said, “I bought the picture.” I said, “Nan, it’s painted on wood. We can’t roll it up and carry it back to Chicago.” She says, “We’ll take care of it.” (Points to the painting) And here she is. She’s at peace with where she’s at and the choice she made.