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Off the streets, into Café Reconcile

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: By now you're used to hearing us at Marketplace feature innovative business models and how they are shaping our economy. However this next story is a little different. It's about a non-profit youth organization in New Orleans that happens to have some incredible business savvy. This organization is holding its own in some of the city's most competitive industries post-Katrina. Youth Radio's Patrick Johnson has the story.


PATRICK JOHNSON: When you walk inside Café Reconcile, you're greeted by a warm "hey baby!"

Soul is the primary ingredient in Café Reconcile's food, and founder Craig Cuccia says it's been that way since the beginning.

CRAIG CUCCIA: I'm a life-long New Orleanian and the idea of Café Reconcile was born out of spiritual adventure.

Not an adventure sparked at a business conference, but instead from Cuccia's time with a Jesuit priest. Who says God can't provide redemption through fried catfish and collard greens?

Café Reconcile is doing just that with six week training sessions in cooking and restaurant management and heaping portions of soul food, all in one of New Orleans' most violent neighborhoods, Central City.

Seventeen-year old Jeffery Vannor is currently department chef in the Café. He dreams of going to Culinary school. Before Jeffrey came here, he was cooking eggs and pancakes.

JEFFREY VANNOR: But now I'm cooking shrimp etouffee and crawfish pasta and smothered okra and collard greens . . .

The point was to get kids off the street and into the hospitality industry.

CUCCIA: We had some really good food at really good prices and the business took off and we were able to train 300 kids up until Hurricane Katrina.

Over a year later, many of those kids are coming back to Café Reconcile looking for jobs. Head Chef Jeron Smith, who calls himself "Chef Joe" used to be a drug dealer making plenty of money.

CHEF JOE: As fast as I was making it, I was blowing it. When I started working here, I started at $6.50 an hour. I did more with that $6.50 an hour than I did with all the money I made standing on the corner.

Chef Joe says Café Reconcile is helping to improve the city in an unconventional way. The program is catching kids before they get too deep into the street life by using a technique that works well with teens: peer pressure. Each success story started by giving one kid a good job.

CHEF JOE: And their friends can see them doing good, they're ding the right thing, Then their friends started to come and that took a whole group of 'em off the corner. That's the only way we can do this, is one corner at a time.

And slowly but surely, Café Reconcile is transforming the lives of young people and the neighborhood surrounding them.

In New Orleans, I'm Patrick Johnson for Marketplace.

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