Food that Fuels Futures
Café Reconcile and Café Hope are Serving Up Changed Lives.
In the 1980s, a Jesuit priest named Harry Tompson became a regular at our parish church, St. Pius X. He made an immediate impression. His homilies were brief, but they put you on the spot. He always seemed to begin quietly and crescendo up to a dramatic roar, at which point he would fall dead silent.
Fr. Tompson was a live wire, and pretty soon his energy became apparent to the whole city. Though he’s gone now, his life left sparks that continue to light fires.
In the years leading up to his death in 2001, Fr. Tompson opened the Good Shepherd School in the CBD, which provides a faith-based education to children from low-income families. He also opened a homeless center that has since expanded to two locations. And, working with businessman Craig Cuccia and lawyer Tim Falcon, he opened the nonprofit restaurant Café Reconcile.
When Café Reconcile opened in 2000, O.C. Haley Boulevard was blighted, forsaken and crime-ridden. The surrounding neighborhood seemed hopeless. But Café Reconcile turned weakness into strength. The concept was so simple that it’s hard to believe that at the time it was revolutionary – use a restaurant to teach young people from rough backgrounds job and life skills.
Café Reconcile quickly became an oasis for kids in Central City seeking to better themselves. In the process, it also pulled Central City up from despair.
O.C. Haley is now both a nonprofit and culinary gathering place. The Southern Food & Beverage Museum, fresh food purveyor Jack & Jake’s Public Market, Roux Carré: the Food Port of New Orleans, and Adrian’s Bakery have arrived or are on the way, joined by restaurants such as Casa Borrega, Purloo and a forthcoming offering from Adolfo Garcia.
The concept behind Café Reconcile has also spread to the Westbank in the form of restaurant/caterer Café Hope, which opened in 2010.
Situated on the campus of Marrero landmark Hope Haven, Café Hope has its own adjacent 1-acre garden. Executive Director Luis Arocha says the garden produces 60 percent of the vegetables served, making Café Hope a true “seed-to-table” venue. He says the restaurant gets its meat from local farms and butchers it in-house. All seafood is from local suppliers.
In total, Aroch says that about 90 percent of the food on each customer’s plate is from local sources. “It’s really important that we’re giving money back to our local farms and fisheries,” he says.
Of course the youth also remain at the heart of the mission of Cafe Hope. Young people age 17 to 24 serve as waiters and kitchen staff, but also participate in spirituality classes as part of the 16-week program. They are served meals with a prayer, listen to talks from successful adults and are taught the skills they need, both for a successful inward life, and for life in the work world.
Many of the youth come from difficult home lives and neighborhoods. For some, participating in Café Hope is an act of courageously fighting back against the negativity they face from peers. Many have grown up with narrow horizons; some have never crossed the Mississippi River.
That being said, none of this means that customers should not expect an excellent experience.
“The last thing these kids need is lowered expectations,” Arocha says. “Nobody is going to cut them slack when they get out in the real world.”
Both Café Reconcile and Café Hope have helped hundreds of youth to-date; 72 percent of Café Hope’s graduates have jobs within six weeks of graduation.
Hoping to spread the successful concept far and wide, Cuccia of Café Reconcile has established the Reconciliation Institute to educate social entrepreneurs around the world on how they can replicate the café’s success.
Somewhere Fr. Tompson is smiling.