Mubaraka Patanwala
Mercury Staff

Nonprofit organization opens cafe to provide hospitality training

A Dallas cafe is providing the community with food, drinks and job opportunities for the homeless.

CitySquare Cafe opened April 23 as an extension of the nonprofit organization CitySquare, which works to combat poverty. The organization was formed in 1988 as a small food pantry in east Dallas and has grown into 17 different social service programs in Dallas, Waco and Denver.

Jarie Bradley, the chief people officer of the community workforce department at CitySquare, said the group concentrates on the needs of the community.

“We are looking to close the financial gap in our communities, especially those who are overlooked in society,” Bradley said. “We focus on service, advocacy and friendship.”

The cafe, which operates as part of a hospitality training program, is located on the campus of the CitySquare Opportunity Center and serves breakfast and lunch from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Graduates of CitySquare’s training programs have found jobs in locations such as the Omni Dallas Hotel, with which CitySquare has a longstanding partnership. Sonya Dorsey, the cafe’s executive chef, said the transition from the program to the workforce is typically a one- to three-week process, and some students receive a job offer by the time they complete the training.

“I give them culinary foundations, whatever I need to give them to get into the industry,” Dorsey said. “We partner with hotels and restaurants, and then we get them jobs.”

Dorsey was originally homeless but worked her way to obtaining a degree and starting a business. She was scouted by CitySquare two years ago to do recipe demos and recently became lead chef instructor to manage the hospitality training program. The curriculum for the training program includes knife skills and prep work, which allows the students to begin at a food service facility such as a restaurant starting with an entry-level job. Dorsey said the program is like a crash course on life.

“(Our students) feel like the world is against them,” Dorsey said. “I just try to instill in them that they’re important, that what they’re doing is important, and what is important for us is to see them to succeed.”

Students of the program are paid interns and receive housing arranged by CitSquare. After the training program, the students either join the workforce or intern at the cafe for an additional seven weeks.

Funding for the program comes from private donors, United Way and other foundations.

After learning about the program from a shelter in Arkansas, Brandy Dixon, a graduate of the internship program and now a full-time employee of the cafe, moved to Texas to take advantage of CitySquare’s programs.

“I didn’t have these opportunities in Arkansas,” Dixon said. “I decided to just come and give it a try, and I fell in love with it.”

Dixon now works as Dorsey’s pastry chef, though she didn’t have much knowledge of baking before she joined the program.

“Without this opportunity, I would probably still be homeless. I have learned so much,” Dixon said. “I know how to do biscuits, cinnamon bun things, cookies, cakes (and) bread pudding.”

The cafe’s staff currently includes five interns and four student workers, three of whom are set to join the internship program, which has a job placement rate of 75 percent.

CitySquare provides other opportunities that work similarly to the hospitality training program, including a commercial construction training program. These initiatives ensure students earn a living wage.

Bradley said the community is the answer to the problems of poverty and that the cafe is an opportunity to build relationships with the community and provide access to a better quality of life.

“Hope is given and received throughout the program,” she said.

In the future, Dorsey plans to expand the program and make it longer. She said she tries to find the strengths in her students, such as baking or prep work, and hone in on them.

“I would like to make the program longer to be able to concentrate on one area of expertise,” she said. “I’d love to see this cafe go further and open up in other areas.”